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New Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan gavels in the Minnesota Senate on Jan. 8, heralding the start of the 2019 legislative session. Flanagan, 39, is a citizen of the White Earth Nation of Ojibwe who served in the Minnesota House from 2015 to 2018. She told reporters last week that she plans to reshape the office of the lieutenant governor by building on the template established by former Gov. Mark Dayton and former Lt. Gov. Tina Smith. With Gov. Tim Walz at her side Monday, she described herself as the new governor’s “top adviser.” She has already had an impact, playing a key role in the selection of all the new agency commissioners during the transition. (Staff photo: Kevin Featherly)

In the Hopper: GOP Senate, DFL House list their priorities

Democrats in the House and Republicans in the Senate laid out their lawmaking priorities for the 2019 session this week.

The House being twice as large the Senate, DFLers listed exactly twice as many priority bills — 10 to the Senate’s five.

The GOP Senate will prioritize mental health supports, child day care access, lowered health care costs, the elimination of fraud and tax conformity.

Some of those plans mesh — as broad themes, at least — with DFL House priorities. Those include affordable health care, greater economic security for Minnesota families, improved education and critical infrastructure investments — particularly for rural broadband — among others.

A gas-tax hike is not on the Democrats’ list, though leaders say such a bill likely will come. Gun-safety legislation is on the DFL list; it is nowhere to be found among GOP priorities.

We’ll describe here several particular bills highlighted last week, focusing on those of interest to members of the bar. Our list does not encompass all of the two bodies’ priorities.

Senate priorities

Senate File 1:  Lead author, Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Vernon Center. This human services bill includes a series of “school-linked mental health services grants” and appropriates money to pay for them.

At the GOP’s Jan. 9 press conference, E-12 Finance and Policy Chair Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, said this bill is part of the Senate’s push for safer schools. Last year, the GOP pushed a safe-schools initiative as an alternative to DFL gun-safety legislation, but it was vetoed in the massive Omnibus Prime supplemental budget bill, along with most of last year’s legislative output. “We’re going to focus on mental health,” Nelson said last week. “It’s important for all of us.”

 Senate File 2, Sen. Karin Housley, R-St. Marys Point. This human services bill would modify day care licensure requirements and order the state Department of Human Services to write both a plain-language how-to handbook and uniform applications for would-be providers. At the Jan. 9 press conference, Housley said Minnesota has lost 3,500 childcare providers in recent years.

Senate File 4, Sen. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka. In the interest of making sure that “every penny goes where it supposed to go,” this human services bill includes appropriations for fraud prevention investigations. Abeler said that the Department of Human Services sometimes pays people to care for children who don’t actually exist. “It seems like sometimes the overseers are slow to act on that,” he said.

His bill — which he said will be accompanied by many more with similar themes over the session — would step up investigations to halt that activity, he said.

House priorities

House File 4, Rep. John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul. On Jan. 9, Lesch invoked notorious “pharma bro” Martin Shkreli, a drug company executive who jacked the price of an AIDS therapy drug from $13.50 to $750 a pill, as a reason this bill is needed.

“America saw this as outrageous and unconscionable,” Lesch said. His bill would target “unconscionable increases” — for instance, when a drug price is suddenly raised by 50 percent — and could levy stiff civil penalties on corporate offenders. “It quite frankly becomes a question for a jury,” Lesch said.

House File 6, Rep. Tim Mahoney, DFL-St. Paul. Mahoney is a retired union pipefitter who says he has been the victim of wage theft — though his union retrieved his earnings for him. Some 40,000 Minnesotans each year aren’t so lucky, he said.

His bill — a similar version had GOP backing last year — would impose civil penalties on employers who hold back duly earned wages from workers. “Did you know that, in this state, if you steal from a bank you go to jail, but if you steal from employees you go to the Bahamas?” Mahoney said. “We’re going to make it illegal to steal from your employees in this state.”

House File 8, Rep. Dave Pinto DFL-St. Paul/House File 9, Rep. Ruth Richardson, DFL-Mendota Heights. These are re-introductions of bills that Pinto authored in 2018 but was unable to get passed. This year’s Pinto bill would impose universal background checks on all gun sales, he said. “Minnesotans deserve to be safe at school, at work and in the community,” Pinto said.

Richardson’s bill creates a “red flag” law that allows families or law enforcement to petition courts for emergency restraining orders. Those could temporarily remove guns from people at risk to committing violence or suicide. “When family members or law enforcement see clear red flags, they should be able to do something about them,” said Richardson, a freshman legislator who also is an attorney.

House File 10, Rep. Kelly Moller, DFL-Shoreview. Moller, an assistant Hennepin County attorney, has picked up the #MeToo movement bill authored last year by now-retired GOP Rep. Joyce Peppin, R-Rogers, the ex-House Majority Leader. The Moller bill would similarly eliminate the “severe or pervasive” judicial standard, which prevents many sexual harassment complaints from surviving summary judgment at trial.

That bill passed in the 2018 House but never cleared the Senate. “All Minnesotans deserve to live and work in environment free from sexual harassment,” Moller said.

Working together

Leaders in both chambers last week expressed optimism that they will be able to work together, and with new Gov. Tim Walz, to get a substantial portion of their priority agendas passed.

However, House Majority Leader Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, acknowledged that the debate on gun legislation will lead to some difficult conversations. But they won’t be impossible ones, she asserts.

She has previously said that GOP recalcitrance on guns helped Democrats flip the House last year. Last week, she again suggested that the GOP Senate might suffer the same penalty, if they keep up their resistance to gun-safety legislation.

“I think that they have to listen to their constituents,” Hortman said. “We always get a little bit better at listening to our constituents when we’re headed into an election cycle.”

The entire Senate goes up for election in 2020.

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About Kevin Featherly

Kevin Featherly, who joined BridgeTower Media in mid-2016, is a journalist and former freelance writer who has covered politics, law, business, technology and popular culture for publications and websites in the Twin Cities and nationally since the mid-1990s.

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