New faces, old challenges await Minnesota Legislature this week

Minnesota’s government will see major changes early this week, as Gov.-elect Tim Walz is sworn into office and the balance of power shifts in the state Legislature.

Walz will be among the state constitutional officers to take office during an inauguration ceremony scheduled for 11 a.m. Monday at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul.

A day later, lawmakers will gavel in as the only divided state Legislature in the U.S. Democrats will control the House for the first time in several years. Republicans will have a two-seat majority in the Senate after Walz appointed one DFL senator to his newly formed cabinet.

Despite the split between House and Senate, the leaders in both chambers said in separate interviews this week that they were optimistic that it would be a productive session. Among bills they’ve targeted for early passage include some that failed in 2018, such as resources to fight the opioid crisis and approval to accept federal election security money.

“The general meetings that we’ve had, it just feels like, I think I can work with these people,” Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said of DFL House Speaker Melissa Hortman and Walz.

“Sen. Gazelka and I share the commitment to do things better than they’ve done in the past,” Hortman said.

Top priorities differ

Democrats gained 18 House seats in last fall’s election and, firmly in control of the chamber, DFLers plan to unveil their first 10 bills on Wednesday.

Walz and House Democrats have prioritized creating a public buy-in for the state’s MinnesotaCare health insurance program as a way to provide insurance to a broader array of people. Senate Republican leaders oppose the idea. They say hospitals and clinics will lose money because MinnesotaCare has a lower reimbursement rate.

Hortman said House DFLers will also propose gun restrictions, including a mandate for background checks on all gun sales. Also on the to-do list: authorize law enforcement officers to hold guns owned by people who have threatened others, a so-called “red flag” law.

The issue will be tricky for Senate Republican leaders, who face a caucus that includes some members that favor tighter restrictions. Gazelka said he planned to work on increases in funding for school safety and mental health programs.

“I really don’t think we need to expand more gun restrictions, but the conversation’s going to be there,” Gazelka said. “I think we need to have the conversation, and beyond the safe schools and mental health, I’m not sure what’s going to get done.”

Hortman said an approach that focuses on school safety and mental health wouldn’t address the mass shooting crisis.

“We could also look at school safety, but we know that mass shootings have happened in movie theaters, in churches, on college campuses,” she said.

In the Senate, Gazelka named family care and daycare as two areas his caucus would prioritize. Republicans will address fraud and access issues, he said. The Senate GOP will unveil its top bills on Tuesday.

Fast start sought

Both leaders said they were hoping for a fast start to the 2019 session, passing some measures quickly to avoid another end-of-session meltdown like 2018 when Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed two massive bills that the GOP-controlled Legislature had passed in the session’s waning days.

Among the bills that could be on the fast-track: resources for opioid addiction and authorizing the state to spend federal money on election security.

“For those items that are not controversial, why don’t we just clear the decks of those in January and February?” Hortman said of the strategy.

Tough debates ahead

A key question is whether lawmakers can quickly get Minnesota’s income tax system in line with the federal system that was changed as part of the 2017 tax code overhaul. If state lawmakers fail to act, they predict Minnesotans will face headaches when filing their taxes.

Lawmakers will then move on to tougher debates over health care, guns and the state budget. Perhaps the toughest debate of all: whether to increase Minnesota’s gas tax.

Walz and House Democrats support an increase to pay for road and bridge improvements. But Senate Republicans have said no taxes or fees should be increased as the state enjoys a budget surplus estimated at $1.5 billion in December.

“If we’re talking about another fee increase, I’m just saying, why do we need to do that when we have a surplus and our reserves are at all-time highs?” Gazelka said.