The 2018 legislative session opened Tuesday with a 27-minute get-together and lawmakers picking up right where they left off after adjourning before last year’s Memorial Day weekend.
While legislators will return to addressing some unfinished business – like adding new oversight to the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority – they face new challenges this year such as conforming the state’s tax system to the recently updated federal tax code. Both parties’ members agree there are new issues to tackle, from workplace discrimination to infrastructure and facility maintenance spending, but they differ in how these topics will be handled.
Regardless, there’s a three-month sprint ahead for lawmakers who must complete their work by the May 21 constitutional deadline.
Most of the day’s business was consumed with procedural moves, but the newest member of the chamber, Rep. Jeremy Munson (R-Lake Crystal), was sworn in after winning a race to replace former Rep. Tony Cornish in a Feb. 12 special election.
Munson, who received an ovation from his fellow lawmakers, joins the 77-member Republican majority, which holds a 20-person advantage over the DFL.
“I’m excited to serve and I’m going to make sure that every piece of legislation that I vote on, that I’m voting for the people in my district,” Munson said, adding that his top priorities include health care and tax code reforms.
House Speaker Kurt Daudt (R-Crown), who typically controls what bills are voted on in the chamber, said one of the session’s highest priorities is conforming the state’s tax code to the federal Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 – passed by Congress and signed by the president in December.
Daudt said a tax conformity bill should be paired with tax relief. Without a relief package, Minnesotans would face $550 million in new taxes, he said.
“We don’t want to see that,” Daudt said. “We want to make sure that Minnesotans have the opportunity to enjoy all of the tax relief that was intended for them by the federal government.”
“I think we all share the goal to not have Minnesotans in a position where they're paying more in their taxes because of the bill that was passed in Washington, D.C.,” House Minority Leader Melissa Hortman (DFL-Brooklyn Park) said. “So our focus will be to re-balance tax cuts to middle class and working families. We think the federal tax bill was too tilted toward the rich and corporations, and here at the state level we have the chance to re-balance that."
The Legislature is currently operating on reserve funds after a prolonged and heated legal battle spilled into the state Supreme Court, where justices sided with Gov. Mark Dayton’s line-item veto that eliminated legislative funding for the next two years. Although a legislative funding bill hasn’t been taken up yet, many expect one to be voted on soon.
“The governor has asked for a clean bill,” Daudt said. “I think it would be really inappropriate to attach anything else to that bill. Playing politics with our staff’s salaries is kind of inappropriate.”
Daudt said he anticipated sending a funding bill to Dayton’s desk either this week or early next week. Dayton has stated publicly he’s willing to sign a clean bill.
The House has enough funding to last through mid-March, according to Daudt.
Since lawmakers last met, gun violence and mass shootings have grabbed headlines, driving some to call for a change in the nation’s firearm laws. Those calls are echoing among some Minnesotans, too.
"I think that many of us here and many in the public are tired of watching our children be slaughtered in schools,” Hortman told the media. “We're all asking, 'What are the things that we can do to make that less likely?' I think there is no one single law that you could pass that would eliminate the chance that something like that happens, but what are the steps we can take that make it a safer environment."
Daudt did not specifically mention guns when asked what he would say to the Moms Demand Action protestors, who held a rally in support of gun control Tuesday outside the House Chamber.
“Obviously everyone is concerned about some of the violence that’s happened recently, both from the mental health aspect and making sure that we’re preventing these incidents from happening again,” Daudt said. “I would imagine we’ll have very thoughtful conversations throughout this session to do whatever we can to curb that sort of thing from happening in the future.”
House Majority Leader Joyce Peppin (R-Rogers) weighed in on the debate as well, advocating for a measured, considerate approach to combating mass shootings: “We have to look at the issue as a whole, and not just sort of be reactionary, thinking we’re going to solve the problem with some magic bullet,” she said. “It’s a huge, complicated problem, and it’s going to take more than just trying to pass some bill on the second day of session to make it a good policy.”
Harassment at the Capitol
After two lawmakers, one representative and one senator, resigned last fall following sexual harassment allegations, legislative leaders banded together to address workplace safety and respect by establishing a subcommittee. On Wednesday, House members are scheduled to go through harassment training.
Hortman emphasized the need “to provide an environment that's free from harassment and discrimination” with strong victims’ rights.
“It's a delicate balance and it's a balance I face as an employment attorney in the private sector,” Hortman said. “People often would like to express concerns, but they don't want to come forward publicly. They want the environment fixed, but they don't want to complain. They don't want to be seen as a complainer or a disruptor. They just want to be treated in the workspace as a co-worker. Just like everybody else.”
Rep. John Lesch (DFL-St. Paul) and Rep. Marion O'Neill (R-Maple Lake) want to change in-House rules to address harassment allegations. Their proposal was briefly discussed Tuesday on the House Floor, but will first go through a specific committee process.
“This is just a first step of getting a conversation started,” Lesch said.
Writers Rachel Kats, Zach Kayser and Melissa Turtinen contributed to this story
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