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Capitol Chatter: Wrapping up a legislative session

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ST. PAUL -- Many under the Minnesota Capitol dome feel the 2014 legislative session will wrap up within a week.

The biggest sign came Friday when legislative leaders announced that House and Senate budget negotiators can add $293 million to the current $39 billion, two-year budget.

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On top of that, however, Democrats who control the Legislature hope to approve $200 million cash for public works projects and borrow $846 million to be repaid over a couple of decades for other projects. They also have approved adding $150 million to the state budget reserve and cutting taxes $103 million beyond the $447 million cut already in law.

Even though pretty much all major decisions have been made two weeks before the Minnesota Legislature must adjourn for the year, many details remain.

The problem is that many of the issues are intertwined and it is hard to wrap up one without wrapping up all.

While most bills affecting spending this year have been folded into one big funding measure, there are a few others that spend a bit of money moving through the process separately.

For instance, a bill allowing patients to use marijuana would bring at least a little cost to the state. All such costs must be known before major bills can pass.

One of the toughest decisions has been about how much to spend on public works projects such as a Capitol building renovation, fixing college buildings and improving parks.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, and House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, have held what appears to be the key talks about how much to borrow with bonds and whether to spend any cash.

Republican leaders, including Daudt, say they cannot back any public works spending higher than $846 million, a figure legislative leaders picked last year, before a state budget surplus was known.

Republicans could be sidestepped on public works cash spending because Democrats have enough votes to pass it on their own, even if borrowing money requires so many votes that the GOP is needed.

Sen. LeRoy Stumpf, who heads the Senate bonding committee, has said he plans to stick to the bonding limit, although he has yet to release the Senate public works bill.

Governor to fish

Gov. Mark Dayton will fish next weekend, the first major greater Minnesota appearance since he was hobbled by a hip injury and resulting surgery early this year.

"He is fishing," spokesman Matt Swenson said in response to a question about whether the injury would keep him from participating.

The Governor's Fishing Opener has become a must-attend event for Minnesota governors. It is in the Brainerd Lakes area Thursday through Sunday.

While Dayton is fishing near Nisswa, Republican governor candidate Marty Seifert will be doing the same in Otter Tail County. Seifert announced he will hold his own fishing opener at Thumper Pond Resort and Rush Lake on Friday and Saturday.

Synthetic drug bill OK'd

House and Senate versions of measures to crack down on synthetic drugs need to be reconciled by legislative negotiators.

Senators approved a bill 49-9 that contains the synthetic drug provisions. The House earlier unanimously approved its own stand-alone bill.

The bills were championed by Duluth Democrats Rep. Erik Simonson and Sen. Roger Reinert, who often talked about problems their city experienced when the Last Place on Earth sold synthetic drugs as legal chemicals.

“Both Rep. Simonson and I are intimately familiar with the synthetic drug problem in Duluth and greater Minnesota," Reinert said. "We wanted to come up with a stronger solution that gives the Board of Pharmacy the authority to issue ‘cease and desist’ orders to businesses or people violating the law."

Authorities do not have enough authority to stop selling the substances, often called bath salts or incense, Reinert said.

No interest, takes job

The interim MNsure chief strongly said a few months ago that he had no interest in being the permanent CEO of the insurance sales program, but Scott Leitz now is doing just that.

MNsure board members on Wednesday made him CEO, without the "interim" label, saying he has led the one-time beleaguered program to make great progress.

“Scott came on board during a time of upheaval, took action and delivered results," MNsure board Chairman Brian Beutner said. "He has insisted upon greater transparency, accountability and delivery of real improvements -- the result of which has been more than 206,000 Minnesotans enrolling in coverage.”

Leitz had taken a leave from the state Human Services Department to step in and fix numerous MNsure problems. When reporters asked him at the time, he insisted that he would return to Human Services, having no intention of making the MNsure job permanent.

An eye opener

Quote of the week, from the state's only blind lawmaker, Sen. Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake: "Let's do it with our eyes wide open."

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Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.
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