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5 things to watch in Minnesota's 2018 legislative session

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The Minnesota House sits nearly empty.
Laptops, papers and empty mugs fill the desks of the Minnesota House as the representatives filter back in on the last day of the 2017 Legislative Session on Monday, May 22, 2017 in St. Paul, Minn.
Evan Frost | MPR News

A 12-week tug of war over the destination of tax dollars, the scope of government regulations and the way public services are delivered starts Tuesday.

It's the 2018 Minnesota legislative session, and it will spill immediately into a full-throated campaign season. That means it is sure to feature plenty of political posturing to go with its denser policy disputes.

With the budget done, there isn't much lawmakers have to get done before the session concludes on or before May 21. But Republicans who run the House and Senate have items to mark off their checklists, and retiring DFL Gov. Mark Dayton wants to make the most of his capstone year of a lengthy career in elective office.

Here's a field guide on some of the issues and themes to watch.

1) Tax talk

People line up at the Hennepin County Government Center.
People lined up at the Hennepin County Government Center in Minneapolis to prepay their 2018 property taxes on Dec. 28, 2017, when it was unclear how changes in federal tax law would affect property taxes.
Evan Frost | MPR News

When Washington restructured the federal tax system late last year, the action put pressure on states to update their own codes. In Minnesota, lawmakers typically try to line up state and federal deductions and other tax provisions to make it easier for filers.

But there was a definite quirk this time: If state lawmakers simply adopted federal-style changes for Minnesota's tax code, it would result in a tax increase in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

If Minnesota officials do nothing, it will cause considerable headaches for state filers in 2019 and beyond, perhaps requiring them to do additional federal tax calculations to even prepare their state forms.

It all leaves lawmakers in a bit of a bind. They'll have to pick and choose parts of the federal tax law to mirror at the state level. But in doing so, they'll be trying to guard against raising some people's taxes to lower those of others.

"Conformity is normally what we strive for and we want to conform, but not just for the sake of conforming. But conformity by itself is a huge tax increase on Minnesotans," said House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Zimmerman. "The problem is it's very difficult to decipher how to hold everyone harmless. My goal would be to try to hold people harmless in Minnesota."

2) Construction projects

Bacteria living in a bed of rocks helps break down wastewater.
Detroit Lakes is building a new wastewater treatment plant to meet requirements that it reduce the phosphorus it discharges into Lake St. Claire.
Dan Koeck for MPR News 2017

Jockeying is well under way by communities, state park enthusiasts, college administrators and local wastewater treatment officials to snag a spot in the latest construction projects plan.

Without question, there will be several times more in demand than authorized borrowing to carry out the construction.

Dayton set his marker at $1.5 billion in bond sales to rehabilitate existing buildings that are in rough shape and add some new ones, from science laboratories to zoo revitalization

Lawmakers will craft their own wish lists, but undoubtedly subtract from the overall price tag of the governor's proposal. Republican legislative leaders say they'd like a package closer to $800 million.

Here's something unique about this bill: It takes three-fifths majorities in both chambers to pass. That means Republican leaders need to the backing of Democrats to move ahead, at least seven in the Senate and four in the House — more if they lose the support of fellow Republicans.

House Minority Leader Melissa Hortman said now isn't the time to skimp.

"Just as a family when they are looking when to take out a mortgage looks at what is happening with the interest rates, this is the time for the state to maximize its borrowing and get those projects under way," said Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park. "They are going to be expensive in the future for two reasons: We know inflation is coming and we know interest rates are going up."

3) Leave it to voters

Molly Yang finishes heads to submit her ballet.
Molly Yang heads to submit her ballot as voters around her cast their votes in the St. Paul city elections at the Arlington Hills Community Center on Nov. 7, 2017.
Christopher Juhn for MPR News 2017

It's an election year after all.

So, get ready to see some constitutional amendments bubble up for votes to consider. The big question is which ones?

Lawmakers have talked about a measure to permanently dedicate tax dollars from auto parts and repairs to road construction. There is also discussion about a change to the way a lieutenant governor is chosen if there is a vacancy. And, in response to last year's fight over a Dayton veto, there might be attempts to alter the power balance between a governor and the Legislature.

Constitutional amendments head to the ballot without involvement of the governor. Once majorities in the House and Senate vote on identical language, the proposed amendment reaches the ballot.

But amendments can motivate certain voters to show up, so the majority party usually tries to put up measures that inspire their own base and won't gin up the other side's core supporters.

With Republicans driving the process, there could be calls for an amendment to curb collective bargaining. But fearing an energized union base, GOP leaders are likely to opt against that. Also, don't expect to see much action on a plan to legalize marijuana for recreational use because that might also lure more liberally minded voters to the polls.

4) Policy galore

A lone protester
A lone protester knelt down in the middle of I-94 on Nov. 17, 2015 as police began to gather in response to the freeway closure. Traffic was at a standstill for several hours during a protest of the police shooting of Jamar Clark.
Judy Griesedieck for MPR News 2015

Lawmakers are likely to pick up some policy debates where they left off in 2017.

Republicans are intent on toughening penalties for protesters who block freeways, transit lines and other public routes. Bills to impose new regulations around abortion could advance, despite consistent veto threats by Dayton.

The governor has said he hasn't given up on a push to provide driver's license for immigrants in the country without proper documentation.

Ride-sharing companies like Uber and Lyft are teaming up to push for statewide rules regarding their services, hoping to avoid city-by-city ordinances.

And there will be hearings around state agency oversight. Lawmakers want answers about and recommended fixes to a new vehicle registration system that debuted last summer with considerable problems; Republicans say there hasn't been adequate accountability.

Similar concerns surround the process for investigating complaints of abuse in nursing homes and other elder care facilities. Dayton's administration has acknowledged being swamped with complaints and could seek more money to help dig out faster.

5) Can we all get along?

Minnesota Legislature
House members gather as they wait for roll call to be completed during Day 3 of the special session on May 25, 2017 where lawmakers strugged to pass a $46 billion budget.
Jim Mone | AP 2017

  After last year's session crash landing and subsequent court battle over the budget, it's reasonable to ask if lawmakers can even work together on the state's business.

Trust was certainly strained between Democratic legislators and Republican legislators, Republican legislators and Dayton and even Dayton and Democratic legislators.

An early test will be on a bill to reinstate critical funding for the Legislature, which is operating through an emergency account until new dollars come through. Dayton has said he'd sign a clean bill, but it's not entirely clear how soon one can come together and whether one side or the other will try to attach controversial items to it.

"Frankly, the best for showing the public that we've repaired the relationship, we're moving on, we're putting this behind us and we're starting fresh is to send a clean bill just exactly the way it was and not add other things," Daudt said.

Beyond that, some lawmakers hope to avoid the ritual pileup of all of the key decisions until session's end, where a small group of lawmakers strikes deals in private before a rush of public votes.

Hortman, the House Democratic leader, said at a pre-session forum featuring Dayton and the four caucus leaders that changing the legislative traffic flow will go a long way to improving what's been a shaky process.

"We have way too much being decided in rooms with the five of us sitting down and talking about what should and shouldn't happen, and that is not how the process was designed," Hortman said.