Wide-ranging topics await area legislators

Posted in Savage Pacer
By Mary Juhl mjugl@swpub.com

State lawmakers will reconvene in St. Paul on Feb. 25, where they will consider a bonding bill and an array of proposals on topics ranging from the state’s minimum wage to bullying in schools.

The off-year session is poised to be short, and Gov. Mark Dayton has labeled it an “unsession” with the goal of undoing outdated or unnecessary laws and passing a bonding bill, rather than focusing on new legislation. Still, nearly 300 bills have been filed by mid-January, according to the House of Representatives Public Information Services. The Legislature must adjourn by May. 19.

“There are always a lot of bills being introduced,” said Rep. Pam Myhra of Burnsville, who represents Savage. “The control is in the hands of [DFL] leadership.”

Both Myhra and Sen. Dan Hall, R-Burnsville, said they support repealing three business-to-business taxes approved during the 2013 session, which includes taxes on the purchase of telecommunications equipment and repairs made to machines and equipment, which both went into effect in July, and a tax on warehouse services, set to go into effect April 1.

Legislators will also work on passing a bonding bill, though lawmakers said its size may be determined largely by a Feb. 28 budget forecast. The Minnesota Management and Budget Office releases forecasts in November and February each year; November’s forecast predicted a nearly $1.1 billion surplus for the next biennium. In addition to passing a bonding bill, area legislators expect to tackle bills this session that could legalize medical marijuana, raise the state’s minimum wage and regulate bullying in schools.

Bonding bill

Gov. Dayton has proposed a $986 million bonding bill, which includes $126 million to finish renovating the state Capitol building, $233 million for higher education and additional funding for an array of infrastructure, transit and economic development projects.

Myhra said she favors bonding for necessary infrastructure improvements, but doesn’t support costly projects like extending light rail lines.

“I like it when the process has integrity, that the projects are a statewide benefit, that they are funding infrastructure,” Myhra said.

Hall said he supports bonding for local and regional road and bridge projects.

“Let’s make sure we maintain what we have,” Hall said. “Our government is growing so fast we’re having a hard time maintaining what we have.”

Medical marijuana

The Legislature will consider a proposal to legalize marijuana for medical purposes this session, sponsored by Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, and Rep. Carly Melin, DFL-Hibbing.

Hall said he thinks medical marijuana will be one of the hardest issues legislators will navigate in the 2014 session. Hall said that while he would never vote for the legalization of marijuana for recreational use, he’s open to the idea of medical marijuana as long the right regulations are put in place.

“I am for anything that helps people and is healthy,” Hall said.

Myhra said she worries that legalizing marijuana for medical purposes could have a negative impact on teen drug use, and that law enforcement’s opposition to the proposal should be considered.

“I am very concerned about medical marijuana,” Myhra said. “My understanding is that the organizations and lobbyists pushing medical marijuana are also pushing recreational marijuana.”

Bullying bill

The “Safe and Supportive Schools Act,” otherwise called the bullying bill, would define bullying and establish policies in public schools statewide with the goal of reducing it. The bill has garnered opposition from some Republican legislators, as well as the Minnesota Child Protection League, a group dedicated to defeating the legislation.

Myhra said that while she’s familiar with the consequences of verbal and physical bullying, she thinks aspects of the current bill are problematic, like a provision that would allow students to report bullying incidents anonymously.

“One of our rights is to face our accuser and have due process, so this denies students due process,” Myhra said.

Hall said he could support a bill that aims to reduce bullying, but that he thinks the current language is too drastic.

“I’m opposed to the DFL bully bill, but I am supportive of a bill that would give the local school districts decision-making powers,” Hall said. “The overreach of the DFL bully bill is so far beyond what it should be.”

Minimum wage

Gov. Dayton has expressed support for increasing Minnesota’s minimum wage, which is one of the lowest in the country at $6.15 per hour. Many employers are required to pay their employees the federal minimum wage, which is $7.25 per hour. The Legislature will consider proposals to increase the state’s minimum wage to up to $9.50 per hour.

Myhra said she thinks raising the minimum wage would hurt people seeking entry-level jobs.

“Oftentimes, when we raise the minimum wage, we see fewer and fewer jobs for those entry-level positions and fewer internships that are paid,” Myhra said. “That is a real concern to me.”

Hall said that with the DFLers in control, he expects a minimum-wage increase will pass, but the final size of that increase remains to be seen.

“The Democrats are in control,” Hall said. “I think they’re going to do an overreach and we’re going to try to hold them back to a minimal increase.”