Whether the 2013 legislative session in Minnesota was a successful one depends on which Democrat you ask.
While many long-sought DFL priorities were achieved at the end of the five-month session, including gay marriage and increased spending on education, a handful of high-priority issues were ultimately shelved in 2013 in the hustle and bustle of crafting a $38 billion budget.
DFL leadership failed to find a resolution on a number of high-priority issues for rank-and-file members, including an increase in the minimum wage, the so-called Gun Violence Prevention Act, a proposal to reduce bullying in schools, and extra funding for transit and bonding projects.
Thirteen-term DFL Rep. Alice Hausman, who crafted an $800 million bonding bill that was ultimately scrapped for a smaller bill, put it simply: “It was a terribly, terribly unsatisfactory end for me.”
At the start of session, a bill to raise the state’s minimum wage didn’t seem very controversial. Both the House and the Senate saved a place for the proposal in their symbolic top 10 symbolic bills of the session, and while they started far apart on how much it should be increased, it seemed likely they’d find a compromise by the end of May.
The House’s first bill raised the minimum wage from $6.15 per hour for large employers to $9.38 an hour. That number bounced around a bit, going up to $10.55 and then down to $9.95 and eventually stopping at $9.50 an hour, a level that managed to pass off the chamber floor. The Senate was more troublesome from the start. Sen. Chris Eaton, DFL-Brooklyn Center, introduced a bill to raise the minimum wage to $7.50 an hour, or just 25 cents above the federal minimum wage that most employers are required to pay. That was increased to $7.75 in committee and passed off the Senate floor by only a single vote. “It’s not easy,” Eaton said of trying to get the more conservative Senate DFL caucus to move to $8.25 an hour, a level she thought was a fair compromise between the House and Senate position. “There’s no way we are ever getting to $9.50, it just isn’t going to happen, as much as I would love it to.”
Eaton and House bill sponsor Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, held their first and only conference committee for the bill on the last day of session, hoping they could quickly push the proposal through the process if leadership managed to strike a deal on the final day. But about two hours from a midnight deadline for adjournment, Winkler canceled any further meeting of the committee for the year, shelving the issue until 2014. Bakk expressed dismay the following morning that nothing could be done on the bill, despite assertions from Winkler that it was a deal between Bakk and Republicans to pass a bonding bill that scuttled minimum wage in the first place.
“I plan to encourage my Senate conferees to engage the business community and the labor community in a conversation about what is a level can we raise the minimum wage to, and I do believe we are going to come back and do that,” Bakk said. “What level can we do that and not jeopardize some of these hours and some of these jobs? [We need to] find a balance where people can put more money in their pockets to support their families and at the same time not jeopardize the business and the work force.”
Big bonding bill
When it came time to take a final vote on a bonding proposal in the final hours of session, House Capital Investment Committee chair Hausman was not on the floor. Hausman had watched her $800 million bonding proposal fall five votes short of passage in the House just days earlier, and she had little interest in trying again to court the eight Republican votes she needed to pass any bonding proposal.
But with her bill went the funding mechanism for the second phase of repairs on the 108-year-old Capitol building. In an effort to revive that project, highly sought by leaders of all four legislative caucuses, Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk quietly introduced a smaller proposal to fund the Capitol a day before session adjourned. That left Hausman and House Speaker Paul Thissen scrambling to craft a bonding bill that could pass the House. Hausman sought two things in addition to the Capitol project: bonding for higher education infrastructure and housing proposals.
But in the end, the bill that was brought to the House floor was designed to attract some of the same Republicans who didn’t vote for Hausman’s original bonding bill, she said. DFL Rep. John Ward presented a $156 million general obligation bonding bill that contained $109 million for the Capitol project, $22 million for two new parking facilities at the Capitol complex, $19 million for the Minneapolis veterans’ home and $20 million for flood mitigation. The bill passed quickly on a 121-10 vote. Hausman was nowhere to be found.
“I would have also been happy to just have the Capitol project in, but instead we added seven projects for Republicans who voted down my original bill,” she said. “They only wanted to vote for their stuff, and that is so offensive to me. I’m a strong believer that you put a fair package on the table that does something for everyone. I couldn’t stomach it. I wanted no part of that. It was so, so unfair.”
Gov. Mark Dayton, who also pieced together a $750 million bonding bill, also regretted not passing a larger package of construction projects this year. “That would have put thousands of Minnesotans to work,” Dayton said the day after session. “Once again Republicans wouldn’t step up to the plate.”
No other issue this session went down as publicly as the so-called Gun Violence Prevention Act. In the wake of the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, and a workplace shooting in Minneapolis, urban DFL legislators launched an effort early in session to curb gun violence. House Public Safety Chair Michael Paymar and Senate Judiciary Chair Ron Latz held several days of highly attended hearings on a slew of gun proposals, including an automatic weapons ban. The two chairs ultimately ditched the highly controversial ban on automatic weapons, but crafted an omnibus gun bill that included universal background checks.
But hesitation from rural Democratic members, who were already weighing a risky vote for gay marriage, caused Paymar’s bill to stall in his own committee. A less ambitious gun bill, authored by Brooklyn Park DFL Rep. Deb Hilstrom, complicated things further. Her proposal did not include background checks, but sped up the transfer of data to a national database of individuals who cannot own guns. That bill had broad support from rural DFLers.
At the urging of Thissen, Paymar said he opted to table the bill in his committee and later help pass a separate proposal that nixed universal background checks but closed the gun-show loophole. Paymar said he thought he had an understanding with Thissen that they would bring that bill to the floor for a vote, where he could offer universal background checks as an amendment. But with weeks to go before adjournment, Thissen said publicly that the bill lacked sufficient support to pass this session and would not be brought to the floor. Senate leaders quickly said they would also scrap their gun bill without action in the House. Within weeks, a bill to legalize gay marriage was passed in the House with overwhelming support from rural Democrats.
“I do think that there was a sense – at least from rural Democrats – that they didn’t want to vote on gun control and gay marriage in the same year,” Paymar said. “Clearly the marriage equality folks were organized, and they were spending enormous amounts of money and they had momentum, and I don’t think they wanted another social issue [to] be sort of baggage on legislators in some rural districts that would be taking a tough vote on both issues.”
Increased funding for transportation this session was a long shot from the start. Gov. Mark Dayton stated early and often that he was opposed to raising the state’s gasoline tax, and without a bump in the gas tax to fund road and bridge repairs around the state, there was little political support for passing a metro-area tax to fund regional transit projects.
The chairs of the House and Senate Transportation committees – Rep. Frank Hornstein and Sen. Scott Dibble –held out hope most of session that they could change the governor’s position.
Dibble attempted to pass a “lights-on” omnibus transportation bill in committee, but it quickly it became clear he didn’t have the legislative support to pass a bill that merely continued the current level of funding. Dibble tabled that bill and redrafted his omnibus transportation proposal to include a 5.5 percent sales tax on gas at the wholesale level, while reducing the constitutionally dedicated gas tax by 6 cents. That bill would go through several complete makeovers before heading into a conference committee with the House, the final being a move on the Senate floor to insert a 5-cent gas tax increase over three years to pay for road and bridge projects and a sales tax increase in the seven-county metro area for transit projects.
But Dayton’s opposition only became stronger near the end of session, when regular unleaded gas prices skyrocketed to more than $4 a gallon overnight. With just days left in session, Thissen and Bakk put the kibosh on the gas tax and metro-area sales tax. Instead, lawmakers passed a last-minute idea floated by Transportation Commissioner Charlie Zelle to issue $300 million in trunk highway bonds to fund transportation improvements.
“I don’t think… it was ready now,” Thissen said after session. “We do have a discussion to be had over the next couple of years about investment in our infrastructure, in particular transportation infrastructure. That is something that we need to engage Minnesotans on.”
At the very end, a bill aimed at curbing bullying in the state’s schools was apparently killed by the clock. The proposal, sponsored by Rep. Jim Davnie and Sen. Scott Dibble, both from Minneapolis, would require schools to create a written policy that prohibits bullying. Schools could also follow a state model policy crafted by the commissioners of the state Department of Education and Department of Human Rights, and the bill would create a “school climate center” that provides resources to schools in dealing with bullying.
After roughly four hours of debate and more than 20 amendments, the House passed the “Safe and Supportive Schools Act” on a party-line vote in early May. But the clock ran out in the Senate, where it took until the last days of session to tee the bill up for a floor vote. With time on their side, Republicans promised to filibuster the bill until session adjournment.
“The end of any session is always a little crazy and a little chaotic and a little more jammed with work than can be done, but what you had was a party that decided a victory was blocking safer schools for kids,” Davnie said. “They recognized they had a parliamentary advantage in the Senate.”
Davnie promises the issue will come back next session, especially after about $1 million was appropriated for the program in the education budget. “That money has been designated for a program that can’t start,” Davnie added. “This will come back next year.”