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Session ’14 agenda: The fine print

Rep. Tina Liebling, left, DFL-Rochester, chair of the House Health and Human Services Policy Committee, says that changes to the Minnesota Sex Offender Program are necessary after a judge issued an opinion on the program. Sen. Roger Reinert, DFL-Duluth, will try once again to pass legislation to legalize Sunday liquor sales. (Staff photos: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

Rep. Tina Liebling, left, DFL-Rochester, chair of the House Health and Human Services Policy Committee, says that changes to the Minnesota Sex Offender Program are necessary after a judge issued an opinion on the program. Sen. Roger Reinert, DFL-Duluth, will try once again to pass legislation to legalize Sunday liquor sales. (Staff photos: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

The dawn of a new legislative session is expected to bring a torrent of debate on legislative topics new and old. Discussions about the repeal of new taxes, a bonding bill and a proposed increase to the state minimum wage seem destined to take center stage this spring.

Gov. Mark Dayton has urged that the 2014 Legislature be devoted to a so-called “unsession” in which lawmakers simplify and clarify existing state statutes, eliminating unnecessary or outdated provisions in law as they go.

But on at least a few issues, legislators are eager to write new statutes or enact significant changes to existing policies. In some instances, bill authors have met privately with colleagues and stakeholders to craft proposals that can pass smoothly. In others, legislators have taken their case to the public, trying to build momentum for ideas that have previously failed to gain traction at the Capitol. Here’s a review of several issues likely  to come up during the session.

Online voter registration

On its face, a move to address the new online voter registration system looks fraught with partisan animosity. Secretary of State Mark Ritchie introduced the new website feature last fall, in the run-up to 2013 municipal elections and was met with immediate criticism from Republicans who argued that he had overstepped the authority of his office. Even some Democrats said the proposal should have been vetted by the Legislature prior to its launch.

Later, a group of Republican legislators became plaintiffs in a lawsuit challenging the registration program, which had already been used by more than 1,400 Minnesotans by mid-October.

Despite the built-in drama surrounding the issue, Rep. Steve Simon, DFL-Hopkins, is confident he has managed to divorce the substantive questions from the political argument. Simon has held a number of meetings in recent months, including a recent “summit meeting” between key players and fellow legislators. He is “cautiously optimistic” that a bill approving online registration will pass with bipartisan support, which the governor has named as a requirement for changes to election law.

“If we don’t get Republican votes, it’s not happening,” said Simon, who chairs the House Elections Committee.

Simon said his proposal would make online registration a permanent option for would-be voters, and said he planned to include provisions that would protect the data privacy of Minnesotans who sign up online.

Sex offender civil commitment

One of the thorniest subjects likely to surface during the coming session is the state’s long-troubled approach to civil commitment for sex offenders. Minnesota currently houses more than 700 civilly committed persons in secure facilities, and the state has granted release to only one in the nearly 20 year history of civil commitment.

Despite repeated attempts to change the process, lawmakers have so far balked at taking steps that could make it easier for prior offenders to move to less secure facilities. Rep. Tina Liebling, DFL-Rochester, plans to revisit the difficult topic again this year, and will use a judge’s strongly worded opinion to help make her case.

On Thursday, U.S. District Court Judge Donovan Frank issued a ruling in the class-action lawsuit brought by the program’s civilly committed offenders. Frank dismissed the plaintiffs’ request that he appoint a special master to reform the system immediately, but approved an idea for an expert panel to review the current Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP) policies and procedures.

Liebling, chair of the House Health and Human Services Policy Committee, read through Frank’s opinion immediately, and pronounced it “not too surprising” that the judge questions the constitutionality of the present civil commitment program. Without productive developments in the Legislature, Frank could choose to change the MSOP on his own.

“It’s a pretty stern warning to us that he will not hesitate to act,” Liebling said.

She said much of the concern about reforming the program has stemmed from fear about the Department of Human Services’ ability to guarantee public safety at less-secure facilities.

“The question is, where are [those facilities] going to be and what are they going to look like?” Leibling said.

Sunday liquor sales

Talk of repealing the prohibition on liquor stores opening on Sundays makes for interesting combinations of legislative allies, bringing together lawmakers who rarely see eye-to-eye. Sen. Roger Reinert, DFL-Duluth, recalled his efforts to pass the proposal out of the Senate Commerce Committee several years ago. A combination of liberal Democrats, Tea Party conservatives and border-area members supported the idea, which passed with four votes from each party.

Reinert thinks positive committee dispositions are a better signal of the issue’s momentum than a House floor vote last year, when an amendment allowing Sunday sales was voted down 106-21.

“Floor amendments are typically not successful,” Reinert said. “I don’t think it’s an indication of where the Legislature is at.”

Since last session, Reinert has encouraged boosters to organize a public campaign, and said he has received “at least” 3,000 emails in support of the idea. He has also been communicating with Rep. Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie, who has a bill that would turn the decision over to local units of government.

Reinert predicted that if the Sunday sales ban is repealed, it would “probably be the most bipartisan thing that would pass all year.”

5 percent service spending increase

No proposal is assured of passage, especially not in an election year session, but there seems to be little doubt that the Legislature will approve a 5 percent increase in funding for disability services providers. Nursing home workers received the same raise last session, but disability spending went up only 1 percent. After the session, a coalition of service providers and disability advocates organized a “5 percent campaign” to call for their own hike in 2014.

In a number of session preview discussions, each of the Legislature’s four caucus leaders have stated their support for the idea, with House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt urging passage of a “stand-alone” bill. Sen. Tony Lourey,DFL-Kerrick, said advocates have a “really compelling case,” and have worked hard to bring attention to unmet needs. The 5 percent increase would cost about $86 million during this biennium, an amount Lourey called significant, even if the projected surplus of more than $800 million holds.

“This is a big-ticket item,” he said.

School bullying

Gay rights advocates were happy with the passage of a bill to legalize same-sex marriage last year, but hugely disappointed when an anti-bullying proposal failed. The bill, which would bolster the existing policy on prohibited conduct in schools, faced strong opposition from Senate Republicans, in particular Sen. Julianne Ortman, R-Chanhassen. Ortman authored a letter to Attorney General Lori Swanson during the 2013 session, asking her office to look into the bill’s possible infringement on free speech for students.

Following that request, chief House author Rep. Jim Davnie, DFL-Minneapolis, worked with attorneys in Swanson’s office to amend the legislation to ensure its constitutionality. Toward that end, Davnie carved out an exemption for private schools, and clarified a section that dealt with “cyberbullying.” Davnie’s bill later passed a House floor vote, but his Senate counterpart, Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, was unable to achieve the same result in the upper chamber.

In the final days of the session, Dibble announced that he would not bring the bill to a vote of the full Senate, saying he feared Republicans would filibuster the proposal to run down the clock. In a statement released at the time, Dibble promised that the legislation remained a “live bill,” and told supporters he would bring it back in 2014.

“We will take it up first thing next February and put every word of it into law,” Dibble said.

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