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Penny-a-pill funding for opioid abuse now in question

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A handful of pills
A handful of pills
Endai Huedl | fStop | Getty Images

Minnesota House and Senate leaders say tax policy and opioid abuse are among the top issues they plan to tackle when the 2018 legislative session begins Tuesday in St. Paul. While Republicans and Democrats agree that those issues are priorities, they have different ideas on how to get there.

During an appearance on MPR News, House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said he expects to pass a major bill this session to fight opioid abuse. Last week, DFL Gov. Mark Dayton and a bipartisan group of lawmakers proposed an opioid measure that would rely on a penny-a-pill fee from drug companies to fund prevention and treatment. Daudt said that might not be the way to go.

"I'm not sure if it will pass exactly in that form, but we're going to take some big steps this year to curb the opioid addiction problem," he said. 

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, also wants to put more money toward fighting opioid abuse, but he too has reservations about the proposed fee. Gazelka said drug companies already pay a lot in taxes.

"I wasn't aware until recently that the pharmaceuticals right now give about $250 million a year that just simply goes into Minnesota's general fund," he said. "So, at the very minimum, I would try to carve out some of that."

Democrats want to back an opioid bill this session. House Minority Leader Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said the effort should be bipartisan. But she doesn't see a problem with charging a fee.

"These drug companies are making a tremendous amount of money off of the fact that people are addicted, and they're selling a large quantity of opioid," she said. "So I think it's fair that they would be part of the solution on the funding side."

This isn't a budget year, so there is very little the Legislature must get done. The key exception is early passage of a measure to restore the funding for the House and Senate that Gov. Dayton vetoed last year. Sen. Gazelka is warning Democrats against trying to link that bill to other issues, such as state worker contracts.

"I think a clean bill is the way to go," he said. "Let's get that done and let's move on to a good, productive session."

Republican leaders also have taxes on their must-do list. House and Senate tax committees have meetings scheduled this week on the recent federal tax code changes and what Minnesota should do with its own tax code to respond.

Speaker Daudt said the decisions around tax conformity won't be easy.

"If we do nothing, it will be really difficult for the Revenue Department to actually figure out what Minnesotans' tax liability is," he said. "So we do feel like we need to conform. If we do just straight conformity, we think on the low end of the estimates it's probably a $550 million tax increase on Minnesotans. And of course we don't want to see that."

Sen. Jeff Hayden, the assistant minority leader, said Democrats don't want a big tax increase either. But the Minneapolis DFLer said they also don't want changes that would put the state budget at risk.

"There's going to have to be some negotiations as to how we go about a tax bill to ensure that we're not going to put ourselves in structural deficit," he said.

The debate over taxes could complicate the end of session, which is scheduled to adjourn May 21. If there's no timely agreement, Rep. Hortman said, a tax bill should wait until next year.