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Minnesota legislative leaders strike early deal, set up a clash on key issues

House Democrats elected Rep. Melissa Hortman to the position of Minnesota House Speaker Thursday, Nov. 8, in St. Paul. Dana Ferguson / Forum News Service

ST. PAUL --Minnesota legislative leaders this week huddled with lawmakers in their political parties to decide their top goals for the 2019 legislative session.

As they weighed their priorities, they had to factor in the new composition of the Legislature.

House Democrats, who will hold the majority in that chamber, stand poised to pass their proposals but Senate Republicans, who hold a one-vote advantage, could block their path to the governor’s desk.

It’s a set-up that will force compromise or gridlock.

And weeks ahead of the 2019 legislative session, two incoming legislative leaders — a Democrat and a Republican — have reached early agreements about a handful of proposals.

But in separate interviews with Forum News Service, House Speaker-designate Melissa Hortman and Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka described plans for bringing down the cost of health care, making schools safer and funding improvements to roads and bridges that signaled they’re on track to butt heads.

“The solutions will end up being in the middle or there won’t be solutions,” Gazelka, a Nisswa Republican, said.

Making the first deal

Weeks after the midterm election, Gazelka and Hortman went to dinner to talk over how they’d work together in the country’s only split Legislature.

And they struck their first deal.

The two agreed that all noncontroversial pieces of a 989-page long bill dropped late at the end of the 2018 legislative session and vetoed by Gov. Mark Dayton would have a green light.

“Anything that was noncontroversial in omnibus prime should pass right away in the new session,” Hortman, a Brooklyn Park Democrat, said.

So resources for combating opioid addiction, approval for the state to take federal dollars for election equipment and language blocking a 7 percent funding cut to home and community support providers will be poised to cruise to the governor’s desk.

“If our chairs of both our subject areas agree with what’s in there right now, there’s no reason not to try to move it forward early,” Gazelka said.

As far as other key issues like boosting funding for education, bringing down the cost of health care and improving roads and bridges, Hortman and Gazelka agreed they were important but split on how to make them a reality.

“How do we navigate through that?” Gazelka said. “We’ll see.”

To tax or not to tax?

Gov.-elect Tim Walz has said he will float a gas tax hike to fund improvement to roads and bridges. Democrats said they’d aim to bring in new dollars to fund priorities like education and health care.

But with a $1.5 billion surplus projected for the budget starting July 1, the state shouldn’t be having conversations about raising taxes or fees, Republicans have argued.

“Living within the resources we have is not asking too much,” Gazelka said.

The Senate majority leader said he’d consider requests by Democrats for more dollars for education, transportation projects and other spending priorities, but wouldn’t get on board with asking taxpayers to kick in more for them.

“With a $1.5 billion surplus, we don’t think we need more taxes to do it,” he said.

Hortman said plans for maintaining roads and bridges need to come with plans for an ongoing funding stream, not just a one-time bump from a budget surplus.

“You can’t just build a road, you have to be prepared to maintain a road,” Hortman said. “So that’s why we need revenue that’s sustainable over time.”

She said lawmakers need to have a talk about boosting the gas tax but signaled Democrats also would weigh alternatives.

“I think one thing we’re definitely going to be talking about is user fees and things where those who use a system pay for that system,” Hortman said. “Right now, general money funds a lot of things maybe user fees could address better.”

“That’s a way of making the pie bigger without raising taxes on people,” she said.

Decreasing the cost of health care

Walz campaigned on a promise to let Minnesotans buy into MinnesotaCare, the state-funded health insurance program for people who don’t qualify for Medical Assistance. Hortman said Democrats would bring that proposal to the table.

“The starting point of the conversation in health care will probably be MinnesotaCare buy-in, but that’s just kind of a tip-of-the-iceberg kind of proposal,” Hortman said.

Senate Republicans have said the plan could price some middle-class families out of the market and drive up costs. And without tweaks, Gazelka said Republicans wouldn’t support it.

“The MinnesotaCare buy-in by itself, unless it’s going to reimburse at the same rates that the private plans do, doesn’t work,” Gazelka said.

Legislators will also decide whether to renew a tax on health care providers that funds the MinnesotaCare program or let it expire.

Gazelka said legislators should let the tax lapse.

“If we’re actually trying to control the cost of health care, my hope is that it sunsets as it is presently supposed to,” Gazelka said.

But that move could put the health insurance program at risk, Hortman said. She challenged legislators pushing for the tax’s expiration to bring more answers about how the state could continue to fund MinnesotaCare without the tax.

“People will get health care,” Hortman said .“They will either get smart health care or they will get dumb and expensive health care." She said proposals that push the working poor off health insurance without a way to make sure health care providers get paid are "just not really a solution, that’s a gimmick.”

Serious conversations about securing schools

A debate on gun control needs to be a part of the conversation about making schools safer, Hortman said.

And as part of that conversation, Democrats will bring proposals to require universal background checks for firearm purchases and allow law enforcement officers to remove weapons from a person that family members believe poses a threat to himself or others.

“We can do something on gun violence prevention,” Hortman said.

Gazelka said giving school officials the tools to make schools safer, not limiting access to guns, should be the top priority. And lawmakers should provide additional mental health resources to children and adults, he said.

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