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Walz urges gun control vote, marijuana groups clash at Capitol in 2nd week of session

The electrolier illuminated the dome of the Minnesota State Capitol building on the first day of the 2019 legislative session, Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2019. Michael Longaecker / FORUM NEWS SERVICE1 / 6
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Gov. Tim Walz and other state officials on Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2019, told reporters about the impact of the partial federal government shutdown on the state budget and discussed plans for mitigating its impact. DANA FERGUSON / FORUM NEWS SERVICE 3 / 6
A grower inspects a cannabis plant at a craft grow operation outside of Nelson, British Columbia, Canada, on Nov. 8, 2018. Ben Nelms/Bloomberg4 / 6
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ST. PAUL -- Legislative leaders and Gov. Tim Walz had a frank discussion about passing gun control measures and days later the DFL governor urged lawmakers to bring them to a vote.

Marijuana legalization supporters and opponents faced off at the Capitol, exchanging shouts at a news conference.

And a bipartisan panel of legislators pressed forward in an effort to outlaw texting and driving, signaling their proposals could come before a committee within days.

In the second week of the legislative session, lawmakers set plans and laid down the line on what they might accomplish this year.

Minnesota lawmakers' decisions could let law enforcement officers remove guns from a person who poses a danger to himself or others or confiscate a driver's cell phone if he or she is caught texting and driving several times. And they could open up the use of marijuana for recreational use.

In the coming weeks and months, lawmakers will have to decide where they'll come down on those issues. For now, here's a look at what happened this week at the Capitol.

Gun control splits crystallize

Legislative leaders and Walz on Monday, Jan. 14, had a frank discussion about gun control at a Forum News Service briefing, acknowledging that public opinions about gun violence have shifted but not agreeing what might be the best path to prevention.

“I think that Minnesotans have been very loud and clear in asking for this and I think that as an American in society today you have to look at the carnage that happened at Sandy Hook, in Las Vegas, in churches," House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said. "We have to do something to address that problem."

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, said lawmakers would conduct a comprehensive review of gun use, sales and impact on the state economy. And he said he anticipated robust talks about proposals to require universal background checks and the implementation of so-called "red flag" laws but he wasn't sure those would gain support in the Senate. Instead, he said additional resources for mental health care and school safety would be in reach.

“I know there are certain things I will be able to get done," Gazelka said, "those are the ones I’m going to put most of my energy on."

Walz on Wednesday said he worried that reviews or conversations about separate issues could stall meaningful reform. And he urged the Senate to put the gun control proposals to a vote.

“Now is a moment for us to seize upon this," Walz said. “Vote on it, don’t just allow it to roll into nothing."

Distracted driving legislation comes forward

A bipartisan group aimed at ending distracted driving on Minnesota's roadways brought forth a pair of proposals they said would force drivers to put down their phones.

Texting while driving is already banned under state law. And those found in violation face petty misdemeanor charges and a $50 fine for the first offense. But law enforcement officers have had trouble enforcing the law.

One proposal would set petty misdemeanor charges and a $50 fine for drivers found using their phones without using a hands-free or one-touch setting. Use of a phone for GPS navigation or emergency communication would be exempt under the proposal.

Another would set penalties for causing a crash that causes injury or death while using a cellphone equal to those for driving under the influence of alcohol. It would also require the state to include distracted driving training in driver's education courses and increase penalties for texting and driving offenses, with the state able to take possession of a driver's phone after several offenses.

Legislative leaders and Walz agreed that there was the political will to get something passed this year, but said overly tough penalties could sink a proposal.

“I simply ask them to try and do something that’s based on science, that we can be enforceable and that we can make a difference and improve safety on our roads,” Walz said.

Federal government shutdown hits home

The state has the funds to keep federal programs afloat through next month, state budget officials said this week, but whether the state can afford to foot the bill beyond that remained in question.

As the ongoing partial federal government shutdown approached the one-month mark, Minnesota Management and Budget Commissioner Myron Frans said he would review the funds that come to the state from the federal government to determine which funding delays would cause the biggest budget hits for the state and set a funding plan accordingly

About 6,000 federal employees in the state have been furloughed or asked to work without pay during the shutdown, Frans said. More than 1,000 of them had applied for unemployment as of Tuesday.

The state secured February funds for Minnesotans that receive SNAP benefits but didn't know if it would be able to foot the bill for March nutrition assistance for about 400,000 people if the shutdown continued.

Different ideas to drive down health care costs

Republicans and Democrats at the Capitol brought their plans for bringing down the cost of health care, an issue they agreed was of top importance for Minnesotans.

Senate Republicans, who hold a two-vote majority in that chamber, said they'd push to let primary care doctors offer patients unlimited visits for a flat fee, make medical pricing easier to access and ensure those with preexisting conditions are covered.

“We’re not tinkering around the edges. These are bold, innovative ideas that will dismantle some of the biggest cost drivers in our health care system, said Dr. Scott Jensen, a Republican state senator from Chaska.

House Democrats, meanwhile, said they had better solutions for driving down health care costs. They said lawmakers should renew a 2 percent tax on health care providers that is set to expire at year's end, let people opt into the state-run MinnesotaCare program and end price gouging by drug companies.

“We cannot afford to approach this with magic," House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, said. "We need to use math, and the math doesn’t add up in the Republican plan.”

Republicans in the House said the proposals from their DFL colleagues would break a campaign promise to lower health care costs. They promised to hold Democrats accountable if they failed to bring down the price of Minnesotans' health care and said they'd push to eliminate the provider tax, which they called a "sick tax." The tax funds MinnesotaCare, the state-run health insurance program for the working poor.

“That’s exactly the wrong approach," House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said. "You don’t make health care for Minnesota families more affordable by raising the cost of health care."

So what will ultimately win out? That'll become clearer as the legislative session plays out.

Recreational marijuana groups spar at a news conference

Disagreements over marijuana policy sparked verbal arguments Wednesday as supporters and opponents met at a news conference.

Smart Approaches to Marijuana, Minnesota, a group that opposes the legalization of recreational marijuana, held a news conference Wednesday morning that was interrupted by a handful of legalization supporters. The groups shouted back and forth at one another, disputing points that each was making.

Later in the day, Walz called on Senate leaders to hold hearings and a vote on legalization. The DFL governor who campaigned on a platform of legalizing the drug for recreational use said conversations about a policy change should continue as quickly as Minnesotans feel comfortable allowing.

"Take it up and debate it and we’ll see," Walz said. “I think it’s possible you get this done. There’s capacity to do this."

House and Senate leaders have indicated that they're not interested in pushing the conversation. And as of Friday, there hadn't been a bill filed to legalize marijuana.

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