The Minnesota Legislature opens its 2010 session on Thursday. Balancing the budget - again - is the top order of business, but much more will debated and voted upon before lawmakers wrap up. They must finish the session by mid-May.
A preview of issues likely to arise:
A package of public works projects will be one of the few areas where lawmakers will authorize new spending. Expect approval for from $815 million to more than $1 billion in borrowing for projects for college campuses, flood prevention and landfill cleanup. Gov. Tim Pawlenty can control the size of the final bill through his line-item veto authority.
Forfeiture laws could get a makeover in the wake of the Metro Gang Strike Force implosion. The special gang unit was dismantled last year amid allegations of misconduct and mishandling of evidence seized from people under investigation. Pawlenty is also pushing for tougher sanctions on drunken drivers, such as expanding the use of breath-activated ignition locks for those convicted of the crime.
It's been a perpetual patch job for Minnesota's battered budget. This time, Pawlenty and legislators must confront a $1.2 billion deficit, which could grow with a late-February economic update and a pending court ruling on the legitimacy of billions in prior budget cuts. The state is also contemplating something it hasn't had to do for a quarter-century: Taking out short-term loans to pay its bills.
Schools are holding plenty of state IOUs already and could accumulate more. In lieu of cuts, Pawlenty has moved to delay some school payments. Education spending is 40 percent of the state budget, so further delays may be unavoidable. School leaders are warning that they'll have to take out loans, drawn down investment accounts or cut staff to get by. Lawmakers say they'll attempt to change laws to further insulate schools.
Nuclear power heats up as Minnesota seeks more energy from renewable sources. Last year, a move to undo the ban on new nuclear plants fell eight House votes short after passing the Senate. Expect it to return. Nuclear waste could also get some attention. Lawmakers have the option of weighing in on a plan - already approved by the Public Utilities Commission - to let Xcel Energy store more nuclear waste at its Prairie Island nuclear plant.
Lawmakers will vote on a new batch of outdoors and cultural initiatives funded by a voter-approved sales tax increase that started last year. Projects that could benefit include plans to buy up and restore prairie land, river buffers and fish and wildlife habitat.
Democrats will try again to win Pawlenty over on a foreclosure mediation bill he rejected last year. The plan would force lenders to the mediation table to work out loan terms with struggling homeowners before they could proceed with foreclosure. The Republican governor's veto message left some room for compromise, but specifics are unclear.
The General Assistance Medical Care program for low-income adults ends April 1 because of Pawlenty's cuts last year. Lawmakers would like to piece together coverage for more than 30,000 people, while the governor's administration plans to switch many patients to MinnesotaCare, another state program that may not work for some of the most vulnerable. Other health issues could crop up:
- Legislators are considering policies to protect nursing home patients from falls and to fight obesity. There's talk of taxing sodas and other calorie-laden drinks.
Seldom does a session go by without a social issue or two taking over the conversation. Conflagrations in past years have flared up over abortion, sex education, stem cells and gay rights.
Despite consistent veto threats, Democrats have tried to steer tax-hike bills through the Legislature. Pawlenty has struck all of them down, whether they deal with income, alcohol or credit-card company taxes. Another deficit could lead to a replay.
A run deep into the playoffs created plenty of buzz around the Vikings, but did little to stir lawmakers to action before the session. The team is two seasons from completing its Metrodome lease, which it has no plans to renew. The Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission has unveiled an $870 million stadium plan without a way to pay for it. The Vikings are counting on a substantial public contribution.
Expect quick action to get you to the polls quicker. It's all but certain that lawmakers will move up the state primary from its traditional September to the middle of August. That's because a federal law change requires a longer window between the primary and general elections. Other election changes, such as clearer absentee ballot standards, no-excuse early voting and a photo ID requirement to vote face steeper challenges.
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)