As leaders dicker with Dayton over key bills, other measures draw limited attention
While legislative leaders haggled in private regarding the 2012 session’s marquee legislation — bonding, taxes and Vikings stadium bills — rank-and-file legislators spent long hours on the floors of the House and Senate in what was believed to be the session’s last full week, processing members’ pet bills.
The floor action ran the gamut from changing the election calendar to loosening fireworks laws. The following is a compendium of notable actions on the floor, in conference committees and elsewhere.
Fireworks: The House and Senate voted to allow people to set off explosive, aerial fireworks. Fireworks are currently limited to sparklers and other things that don’t go boom. The bill would allow fireworks to be sold during a five-week period each year starting on June 1. The House, led by Rep. John Kriesel, R-Cottage Grove, passed the bill on Tuesday 77-50. The Senate, where the bill was sponsored by Sen. Mike Jungbauer, R-East Bethel, took up the House version and passed it 48-17. The voting trend reflected strong opposition from most urban and some suburban DFLers. Republicans were much more supportive of the bill, although some dissenters popped up in the ranks. In the House, 42 DFLers and eight Republicans voted no. Fifteen DFL senators and two Republican senators voted no.
“We have compromised with the House and the opponents of this bill,” Jungbauer said.
HHS: On Tuesday the House voted 128-2 and the Senate voted unanimously to restore $18.1 million in health and human services program cuts applied as part of last year’s budget deficit fix. Some lobbyists said afterward that the Senate vote was the first unanimous vote on an HHS omnibus bill in at least 20 years. The bill reverses the 20 percent reduction in payments to people who provide home care for family members. The bill also restores funding for emergency medical assistance.
June primary: The House prevailed in conference committee when it came to establishing a June primary, but that conference report was promptly rejected by the full Senate. Moving the state’s political primary date from August to June passed the House by one vote earlier in the session. The provision wasn’t included in the bill passed by the Senate. During Senate floor debate, both Republicans and DFLers expressed displeasure that they hadn’t vetted the issue before conference and that the change would lengthen the general election campaign season. The Senate rejected the conference report 35-30. The reconvened conference committee stripped out the June primary, and the bill passed two days later.
Payouts for public officials: Legislation intended to bring greater transparency to investigations of public officials and any ensuing payouts initially looked poised to pass with broad bipartisan support. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Pam Myhra, R-Burnsville, cleared the House on a unanimous vote earlier this month.
But the Senate version of the legislation, authored by Sen. Dan Hall, R-Burnsville, has run into opposition from some organizations that represent local government officials. Their concern is that even frivolous complaints would be made public and that public officials would be unfairly maligned. “That was our concern, that it was very expansive, that it didn’t just focus on resignations or severance packages,” said Gary Amoroso, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators.
The legislation was spurred by outrage in response to a $255,000 payout by the Burnsville school district to former human resources director Tania Z. Chance, who resigned six months into a two-year contract.
Talks toward a brokered compromise on the measure looked promising late in the week. “I think it has a pretty good chance,” said Mark Anfinson, attorney for the Minnesota Newspaper Association, which supports the legislation. “There appears to have been a compromise worked out.”
School trust lands: More than a year’s worth of bipartisan legislative criticism aimed at the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) came to a head on the floor with the school trust lands bill. Select Republican and DFL legislators have studied the management of 2.5 million acres of timber and mining lands that were given to the state by the federal government at the time of statehood to benefit K-12 education. They have charged that the DNR has failed in its fiduciary duty to manage the lands to maximize revenue for schools. Gov. Mark Dayton and DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr disagree; on Monday they wrote a letter to legislators “to express our strong opposition” to the bill.
But on Wednesday, both the House and Senate passed by whopping margins a conference report that assigns the administration of the lands to a newly created Legislative Permanent School Fund Commission with a trust lands director who would be appointed by the governor and housed within the Department of Administration. (The House passed the bill 110-21, the Senate 42-20.)
After the bill passed with such widespread support from legislators in his own party, Dayton appeared to pull back; his spokespeople said he had not made a decision on the bill.
Legacy: House and Senate conferees reached a deal on the Legacy bill, which buys land and conservation easements to boost the quality of Minnesota’s hunting and fishing. The main point of disagreement heading into conference was the centerpiece of the bill: the purchase of a 2,000-acre parcel owned by the Potlatch Corp. along a 2.7-mile stretch of the Mississippi River. The compromise appropriates $11 million for the purchase, which splits the differences between the House position ($7 million) and the Senate position ($14 million).
Abortion: On Thursday, Dayton vetoed legislation passed the previous week that would have established licensing requirements for clinics that perform 10 or more abortions a month. The licensing standard would be the same as the Minnesota Department of Health’s licensing of surgical centers. Dayton, in his veto letter, said that the legislation was unclear and that the clinics are already subject to a number of licensing requirements and OSHA requirements. Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life chief Scott Fischbach said the veto reflects Dayton’s “commitment to protecting the abortion industry, even when it results in putting women’s health at risk.”
LIFO: The Republicans’ marquee education policy initiative of putting an end to the use of seniority as the basis for teacher layoffs received a douse of cold water on Wednesday from Dayton. He singled out the issue, known as “last in, first out” (LIFO), as off-limits for the purpose of end-of-session bargaining. Nonetheless, the House passed the LIFO bill, sponsored by Rep. Brandon Petersen, R-Andover, 70-61 on Thursday night. Two House Republicans, Reps. Dean Urdahl of Grove City and Greg Davids of Preston, voted against the bill; one DFLer, Rep. Kate Knuth of New Brighton, voted in favor.
Petersen implored his colleagues to send the bill to Dayton despite his public pronouncement.
Minority Leader Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, said Republicans were pushing the issue for the political purpose of appealing to their base. He said the LIFO law is premature while a task force works on devising a new system for evaluating teachers.
“It’s not going to be effective until 2016,” Thissen said of the evaluation system. “We have time to get this done right.”
Liquor: The most notable provision of the omnibus liquor bill is to allow the sale of beer at TCF Bank Stadium at the University of Minnesota. On Monday the House passed the conference report, which was sponsored by Rep. Joe Atkins, DFL-Inver Grove Heights, on a vote of 115-13; the Senate had adopted the conference report the previous Friday on a 55-3 vote. If the university’s Board of Regents accepts the deal, people will be able to drink beer in suites, and the general public will be able to drink beer in a designated beer garden. The bill is the result of a saga in which university policy restricted liquor to suites, and the Legislature objected and responded by restricting the liquor license at the stadium unless other ticket-holders were served as well.