What got done: A summary of the 2019 Minnesota legislative session
ST. PAUL — Following more than five months and one overtime special session, the 2019 Minnesota Legislature completed its work early Saturday, May 25.
After leaders reached a bipartisan agreement with Gov. Tim Walz, a Democrat, lawmakers in the divided Capitol — Democrats hold the House and Republicans hold the Senate — voted through thousands of pages of legislation following an all-night special session.
The reams include a $48.3 billion two-year budget, ranging from changes to tax policy to hiring more prison guards.
They also fell short on a number of priorities, especially those of progressives, leaving advocates frustrated and many Democratic lawmakers soberly noting that they’ll be back next year.
Here is what happened on a number of those issues:
Gas tax increase: Minnesota drivers won’t pay 20 cents more per gallon at the pump. The Republican-controlled Senate beat back the gas tax increase that Walz and House Democrats proposed. The governor pledged to continue to push for a long-term, guaranteed source of additional money for roads and bridges.
Other taxes and fees: Drivers also won’t have to pay higher license plate tab fees or motor vehicle sales taxes, and metro residents were spared a sales tax increase to pay for transit improvements. Walz and House DFLers proposed those tax hikes, but Senate Republicans kept them out of the final transportation funding bill.
Roads and bridges: The state will have an additional $275 million to spend on roads and bridges over the next two years due to growth in existing state taxes. GOP senators prevailed in continuing to steer a portion of sales taxes collected on auto parts to transportation projects.
Left-lane lollygaggers: Slow drivers have to use the right-most lane and must move over when another driver passes on the left, as long as it’s safe to do so, under a provision headed to Walz’s desk. A previous version of the so-called “slowpoke bill” was approved by lawmakers last year but was vetoed by former Gov. Mark Dayton for unrelated reasons.
Hands-free driving starts Aug. 1: Earlier in the legislative session, lawmakers approved — and Walz signed — a ban on using a cellphone while driving unless it’s in hands-free or one-touch mode. It will take effect Aug. 1.
MNLARS: The years-long saga for the computer system for vehicle titles and tabs known as MNLARS is hardly over. But lawmakers and Walz made some major decisions about its future.
- It will be scrapped and replaced with another system developed in the private market. That system will likely be based on one used in other states.
- It’s unclear what that will cost, but the two-year budget includes $55 million; a commission estimated a $60.5 million price tag over 26 months.
- The budget also includes $13 million for license center operators who lost money as a result of problems with MNALRS.
Undocumented college students: Undocumented college students who are not legal citizens can receive state grants, but they do not qualify for federal Pell Grants. A proposal in the higher education bill passed by the House would have made undocumented students eligible for more state grant money to make up for the gap in federal aid.
That proposal did not make it into the compromise higher education bill.
Driver's licenses for all: A coalition proposed allowing the state to issue driver’s licenses to undocumented residents.
Supporters say the move would increase public safety by ensuring drivers are trained, save costs by reducing the number of uninsured drivers, help certain economic sectors by allowing a key segment of the labor force to drive to their jobs and generally treat undocumented residents with respect. Opponents said it would incentivize staying in the country illegally.
The House approved the plan, but the Senate never voted on it. It failed to make it into the compromise bill.
Conversion therapy: Gay rights advocates sought to prohibit mental health practitioners and professionals from charging money for so-called gay “conversion therapy” — the widely discredited practice of attempting to change someone’s sexual orientation.
Democrats, who hold the majority in the House, approved the ban, but it was voted down in the Republican-controlled Senate on a party-line vote.
Marriage equality (Logan's Law): Half of the married gay women in Minnesota are forced to adopt their own children under Minnesota law. Even though gay marriage became legal in Minnesota in 2013, a host of gender-specific terms remain in statutes. A bill known as “Logan’s Law” after a St. Paul child of two women passed the House but never reached a vote in the Senate and was ultimately not included in the final plan approved by lawmakers.
Opioid crisis: On the last day of the regular legislative session, lawmakers agreed to raise fees on drugmakers and invest the money into addiction treatment and prevention services. Walz signed the bill into law on Wednesday.
The state will now collect about $20 million per year from registration fees imposed on opioid manufacturers and distributors. Much of the proceeds will fund prevention strategies to reduce opioid deaths and overdoses. The other funds will reimburse Minnesota counties for child protection costs related to families harmed by the opioid epidemic.
Regulating middlemen of Big Pharma: The Legislature also passed a bill to regulate pharmacy benefit managers, which negotiate with drugmakers on behalf of insurance plans. They manage drug pricing and decide which medications are covered by insurance companies.
Under the new policy, which was signed into law by Walz, pharmacy benefit managers must be licensed, which gives the state authority to suspend, revoke or place a manager on probation. The managers must also disclose rebate and pricing information and notify health plans if an activity presents a conflict of interest.
Emergency insulin, precription drug plans: Heading into final talks, Democrats in the House and Republicans in the Senate appeared to be in agreement on two proposals: giving diabetics access to an emergency supply of insulin if they cannot afford it and requiring drugmakers to report price hikes and explain why they increased.
The proposals were included in both the House and Senate health and human services bills but did not make it into the final compromise.
The compromise health and human services bill did include a measure that would require pharmacies to provide emergency refills for patients who run out of their medicine, but the supply would not be free. It also would require health plans to report drug price trends each year, among other measures.
More staff: The budget includes money for the department to hire 67 new corrections officers over the next two years plus another 11 by the end of fiscal year 2023.
Agency officials had sought funding to hire 120 new officers, citing urgent security needs in state prisons. The department needs 170 more for prisons to be fully staffed and already has money to hire 50 officers. DOC commissioner Paul Schnell said the agency will deploy the new officers at the most vulnerable facilities.
Corrections ombudsman: The corrections department will be able to reestablish an ombudsman for the first time since the Legislature eliminated the office in 2003 thanks to money set aside in the public safety budget.
The ombudsman will have the power to investigate decisions and dealings made by the Department of Corrections, as well as complaints from jails and detention facilities. The ombudsman can access agency data and even file a suit to invoke its powers.
Solitary confinement: Use of solitary confinement in state prisons will be subject to new regulations and reporting requirements.
The provisions state that inmates who are sentenced to segregation must be tested for mental illness, and those who are diagnosed with an acute mental illness should receive an alternative course of punishment. And inmates who are in segregation must receive regular mental health checks.
Pending approval from the governor, the bill would also require the corrections commissioner to review lengthy solitary stays and prohibit inmates from completing their sentences in segregation.
Probation reform will wait: Democrats in the House pitched reforms in their initial public safety bill that would have capped probation sentences at five years and reduced the number of offenders who are locked away for probation violations.
The proposal did not make it into the final compromise bill.
Outdoors and environment
Energy policy: Lawmakers were unable to reach a deal on any significant changes to energy policies. A Walz plan to rid the state of fossil-fuel electricity by 2050 won’t reach his desk. Democrats’ hopes to expand solar gardens — and Republicans’ hopes to rein some in — both failed to emerge. Similarly, Democratic notions of encouraging electric vehicles and Republican ideas to hike taxes on those same vehicles also ran out of gas.
Wolf hunting ban fails: An attempt led by House Democrats to permanently ban wolf hunting passed the House by one vote but failed to gain traction in the Senate and ultimately was not included in legislation sent to Walz, who had indicated he would sign it.
Gray wolves are on the federal endangered species list and can’t be killed for any reason other than to protect human life.
Chronic wasting disease: Lawmakers approved a plan to address the spread of chronic wasting disease in the state’s captive and wild whitetail deer populations.
The plan calls for increased regulation of deer and elk farms, including more fencing, mandatory killing of captive herds when CWD-infected deer are found, and increased fees, inspections and penalties for noncompliance. A network of “adopt-a-Dumpster” locations would provide hunters a safe place to dispose of deer carcasses, and hunters would be prohibited from bringing deer and elk they killed out of state into Minnesota. Also, a $1.8 million grant would go toward the University of Minnesota to develop the first CWD test for live animals.
Higher AIS boat fees: To bolster funds to combat the spread of aquatic invasive species, the Legislature approved increasing a $5 boat registration fee to $10.60 over several years.
Two-pole fishing: A perennial attempt to allow anglers to fish with two fishing rods during the open-water season passed the Senate but failed to gain enough support in the House and will not be heading toward Walz’s desk.
State bumblebee: Minnesota could have a state bee. Under a measure approved by the Legislature, the rusty-patched bumblebee would join the ranks of the walleye and loon among the state’s official fauna. However, efforts to further protect the pollinator by listing it as endangered failed.
TCE ban: Attempts by Democrats to phase out the use of TCE, or trichloroethylene, a carcinogenic chemical, fell short of being approved in the final legislation. The measure was inspired by the yearslong releases of TCE into the air from Water Gremlin, a fishing weight and battery terminal maker in White Bear Township.
Hunting changes: In measures heading toward Walz’s desk: Meat processors would see an increase to $150 from $70 in state reimbursement for each hunter-killed deer donated to the venison donation program; turkey hunters would be allowed to use a muzzleloading shotgun; and night vision goggles would be allowed for hunting coyotes and foxes.
Fishing: The Legislature approved promoting burbot and cisco, or tullibee, to the list of official “game fish” and directing the Department of Natural Resources to develop a “curriculum” for nonprofit groups to help high school fishing leagues.
Other outdoors bills: Other provisions approved by lawmakers include increasing the cost of cross-country ski passes and encouraging youth getting outdoors via $500,000 in grants to a “No Child Left Inside” program to schools to add firearms safety, trap shooting, archery, hunting and fishing in gym class.
Tax cuts: Under the tax deal, Minnesota’s second income tax tier will drop from 7.05% to 6.85%. It impacts couples earnings between $37,850 and $150,380 and individuals earnings between $25,890 and $85,060.
That cut will cost the state about $360 million over the next two years. The plan also expands access to the working family tax credit.
There’s also a reduction of state property taxes for businesses that will cost about $50 million a year.
No new revenue: Democrats had hoped to use the tax conformity bill to raise new revenues to fund priorities like schools, health care and community improvements. The money would have come from higher taxes on corporations and the wealthy.
But Republicans did not want to raise rates and wanted to return any new revenue from the tax bill back to taxpayers. They opposed the Democrats’ proposal to raise roughly $1 billion from taxing corporations’ profits brought back to the U.S. from overseas.
The tax bill the two parties settled on raises no new money for the general fund and is what lawmakers call “revenue neutral.”
Private school scholarships: The bill leaves out tax breaks for people and corporations who give money so lower-income students can attend private schools. Republicans have offered this proposal several times, arguing it was a path out of struggling schools for some families.
Democrats have opposed the idea, saying it would strip funding from public schools and could be used to benefit more wealthy families.
Boost in local aid: There is enough money generated by tax changes to increase local government aid, used to pave local roads and fix bridges, back to the level it was in 2002. It will cost about $30 million a year.
Preemption left out: Republicans in the Senate had hoped to wipe out $15 per hour minimum wage ordinances in St. Paul and Minneapolis with a retroactive preemption bill. It’s been a big priority for the state’s chambers of commerce whose leaders argue city-specific rules on pay and benefits are bad for the economy. Democrats fought off the change, saying cities often lead the way in policy changes that improve residents’ lives.
The preemption change was not included in the Legislature’s jobs budget.
Wage theft: The budget includes new rules that make wage theft against the law for the first time in Minnesota. Employers who do not pay workers for their time can face stiff penalties including prison.
There’s $7 million in the bill to fund enforcement of the law that proponents called the strongest in the nation.
Health and human services
Child care assistance: Lawmakers moved to tighten oversight of child care assistance after the state Legislative Auditor reported it was difficult to gauge how much fraud was in the program.
The health and human services budget includes new rules to improve federal compliance and better ensure child care funds are spent properly. That includes tough rules for taking attendance and more money for fraud prevention. There are also new efforts to educate providers.
Welfare increase: Benefits in the Minnesota Family Investment Program are set to increase for the first time in 33 years. Under the budget deal, families on the state’s welfare-to-work program will see an increase of $100 a month in cash assistance.
The increase has been a perennial issue at the Capitol and had bipartisan support but failed to make it into past years’ budgets.
Reining in costs: Growth in the health and human services budget has been a key frustration for Republicans, and the next state budget creates a new task force to find ways to cut spending and waste. The panel will look for ways to stop fraud and abuse and save the state $100 million by 2023.
Protections for elderly: Lawmakers approved a package of elder care reforms that includes a framework to license assisted living facilities, making Minnesota the last state in the nation to do so. It also establishes consumer protection measures such as a bill of rights for seniors and the ability for residents to have a camera in their living space.
The far-reaching bill was spurred by reports of widespread abuse and neglect in state assisted living facilities and nursing homes. Walz signed it into law on Wednesday.
Provider tax: One of the top issues facing lawmakers was what to do with a 2% tax on health care providers that was scheduled to sunset at the end of the year. The tax raises about $700 million a year for the Health Care Access Fund that is used for programs to keep care affordable and accessible.
The budget deal keeps the tax but lowers the rate to 1.8%. There is no sunset provision, so the tax will not expire.
Tapping the access fund: In something of a twist, after sparring over the provider tax all session, the budget Republicans and Democrats agreed to relies on taking money out of the Health Care Access Fund. Over the next four years, $784 million will be moved out of the fund to pay for other priorities in the general fund.
No 'OneCare': One of Walz’s priorities this year was allowing residents to ‘buy in’ to MinnesotaCare, the public health insurance for the working poor. Walz said his OneCare proposal would help people who want to buy insurance on the individual marketplace MNsure but cannot afford the premiums.
Republicans balked at this plan, fearing the lower reimbursement rates government insurance pays could hurt rural hospitals. They also were skeptical the plan would be as affordable as Democrats promised.
Per pupil formula: Legislative leaders agreed to boost the per-student funding formula 2% each year of the next budget. That will cost $384 million of the planned budget increase.
Democrats proposed a larger formula boost and Republicans a more modest one. School advocates and teachers union leaders called the lawmakers’ agreement essentially the status quo.
Special education: After years of being lobbied by school leaders, lawmakers are going to start to chip away at rising special education costs. The budget pact includes $90 million to address what administrators call the special education cross-subsidy.
That is how much districts have to kick in to cover state and federal mandates that government doesn’t cover, but should. The gap has grown to more than $800 million a year statewide.
Preschool money: The education budget also includes $47 million in one-time funding to keep 4,000 preschool spots in public schools across the state. The program was first approved under Dayton but has not been permanently funded.
Under the plan approved by lawmakers, those preschool seats will be funded for another two years.
Licensing changes: The budget bill left out changes to the state’s new teacher licensing system that Democrats and union leaders wanted and Republicans and school reform advocates opposed.
Lawmakers proposed tightening the rules to get a license to prevent educators with no formal training from getting what are essentially permanent licenses. Opponents argued the change would force teachers of color from the classroom as Minnesota was working to attract more diversity to its teaching ranks to work with a changing student population.
Higher education tuition: Lawmakers hoped to put enough money in the higher education budget to hold the line on tuition increases, at least at state colleges and universities.
But the $150 million lawmakers settled on won’t be enough to do that. Minnesota State will get $81.5 million in new money and the University of Minnesota will receive a $43.5 million boost.
The state grant program, which funds need-based financial aid, received $18 million in new funding.
Medical marijuana: Measures to expand the state’s medical marijuana program were included in the compromise health and human services bill. Pending the governor’s signature, Minnesota’s two medical cannabis manufacturers will be able to open twice as many dispensaries, write off their business expenses and buy hemp from local farmers.
A proposal that would have legalized the marijuana plant for medicinal use did not make it into the compromise bill.
Recreational marijuana: Proposals to legalize recreational marijuana or create a task force to study it did not make it through this year. The Republican Senate was the only chamber to hear a legalization bill, and a committee of lawmakers voted it down.
The Democratic House wanted to establish a state task force to study legalization, and members included the proposal in their public safety bill. It did not survive negotiations between the House and Senate.
Gun control: Two gun control proposals were not included in the compromise public safety budget bill. One would have expanded background checks to include private gun sales and transfers, while the other would have created a “red flag” law that would allow police to seize guns from people deemed dangerous.
Democrats in the House included the measures in their initial public safety bill, but the proposals did not have support in the Republican Senate.
Abortion: Senate Republicans included a ban on abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy unless the mother is at risk of death or serious harm in their first health and human services budget plan. Supporters say the ban was intended to protect a fetus when it is able to feel pain.
Democrats opposed the change, saying it took away women’s reproductive rights and criminalized physicians who are trying to provide the best care for their patients. The proposal was not included in the final budget bill.
Paid family and medical leave: House Democrats pushed for a payroll tax to replace part of a worker’s income when they miss work because of illness or to care for a family member. The statewide paid family and medical leave program would have imposed a 0.6% tax on income, with employees and employers sharing the burden.
Democrats in the House included the measure in their initial jobs bill, but the Republican Senate opposed it, and it was dropped in final negotiations.
Equal rights amendment: Democrats hoped to enshrine equal rights for women in both state and federal law. They proposed several bills that would change the Minnesota constitution and urge adoption of a federal amendment. Both efforts failed.
Republicans opposed the measure on a number of grounds, primarily, that it could expand abortion rights. There was also concern using the term gender rather than sex was too broad.
Bde Maka Ska/Lake Calhoun: The legal and political back-and-forth over the Minneapolis lake known variously as Calhoun and Bde Maka Ska will not be the subject of any bills before Walz this year.
After a court overturned the Department of Natural Resources’ changing of the name from Calhoun to Bde Mka Ska, House Democrats pushed through a bill that would do the same thing. It failed to gain enough support in the Republican-led Senate.
Fort Snelling at Bdote: The Minnesota Historical Society won’t be penalized for using a Dakota people’s name to identify the site of Historic Fort Snelling.
The fort is located at the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers, which the Dakota called “Bdote.” To identify the location, the Historical Society recently added the words “at Bdote” to signs welcoming visitors to the fort.
Some Republicans called that addition “revisionist history,” and the GOP-controlled Senate voted to slash the Historical Society’s budget by $4 million a year, which could have meant cutting hours at historic sites and reducing the society’s programs. But Walz and the DFL-led House backed full funding for the organization, and it was restored in the final budget bill for state agencies.
5 things named Mondale: After Democratic-led plans to rename two state parks after former Vice President Walter Mondale fell under criticism, supporters regrouped, and lawmakers ultimately approved renaming five places in the Democratic politician’s honor:
In order to legally do this, lawmakers also approved a waiver to an existing law that prohibits naming things after someone who is alive (as Mondale is).
- The Walter F. Mondale Scenic Riverway on the St. Croix River;
- The Walter F. Mondale Scenic Overlook and Trail at Interstate State Park;
- The Walter F. Mondale Visitor Center at St. Croix State Park;
- The Walter F. Mondale River Trail at Wild River State Park;
- The Walter F. Mondale Day Use Area (currently the Lake Alice Day Use Area) at William O’Brien State Park.
In order to legally do this, lawmakers also approved a waiver to an existing law that prohibits naming things after someone who is alive (as Mondale is).