Your guide to following the 2019 legislative session

Legislators debate a bill on the house floor.
Legislators debate a bill on the House floor inside the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul in May 2018.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2018

Updated: March 4 | Posted: Jan. 8

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It will be a landmark political year in Minnesota.

The state has a different governor and a new makeup in the state Legislature, meaning both branches of government are looking at issues with a fresh set of eyes.

But lawmakers will also confront some of the same old problems — the achievement gap, rising health care costs, sexual harassment in the workplace and gun violence. And they must pass a balanced budget by this summer, or state government will shut down.

Here's a guide to following along throughout the 2019 session — from the key dates and players to the major issues to watch.

The players

Tim Walz and Peggy Flanagan: The administration of Democratic Gov. Tim Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan is promising to be energetic and involved in the process. But the six-term congressman is an outsider to the Minnesota Capitol and will be navigating its dynamics for the first time. He must also navigate his vision to unite urban and rural divides in the state with the more progressive wing of his party.

Melissa Hortman: As House Minority Leader, video of Melissa Hortman went viral after she spoke from the floor, telling male legislators to leave the House retiring room and listen to women legislators as they were speaking. Capitol watchers can expect more of Hortman's "sorry, not sorry" style as the new DFL speaker of the Minnesota House. But she must also lead a suburban-heavy DFL caucus with many new members in competitive swing districts and find agreement with the GOP-held Senate.

Paul Gazelka: Majority Leader Paul Gazelka leads the Senate Republican caucus, which holds the majority by just two votes — or less, pending a special election. Gazelka will feel even more pressure in the next session to hold his team together to block certain policies, facing the DFL-held House and governor. But the soft-spoken insurance agent is not opposed to working out a deal or two, either.

Vulnerable Republican senators: That narrow majority in the Senate means a handful of members could feel some intense pressure this session from both sides as critical swing votes. Suburban Republican senators could feel the squeeze after many of their House counterparts were defeated in the last election. Legislators to watch include Sens. Paul Anderson, R-Plymouth, Karin Housley, R-St. Mary's Point, and Jim Abeler, R-Anoka.

Rural House Democrats: The same can be said about the shrinking number of rural Democrats in the Minnesota House. With a new urban-heavy caucus, they may have to cast some tough votes for their districts on issues like gun control and health care. That includes Reps. Jean Poppe, DFL-Austin, Gene Pelowski, DFL-Winona, Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, and John Persell, DFL-Bemidji.

Doctors in the House and Senate: There will be four doctors serving in the Minnesota Legislature in 2019, including Reps. Alice Mann, DFL-Lakeville, and Kelly Morrison, DFL-Deephaven, the first doctors to serve in the lower chamber in 15 years. They join two doctors serving in the Senate, Scott Jensen, R-Chaska, and Matt Klein, DFL-Mendota Heights. They will all bring a critical eye to big health care debates this session, including an expected pitch to create a public buy-in health care option. Jensen has proven to be an interesting player already, supporting some versions of gun control and buy-in plans in the past, not typical stances in the Republican Party.

Key dates

• Jan. 7: Walz takes the oath of office to become Minnesota's 41st governor.

• Jan. 8: The Legislature must convene by noon.

• Feb. 19: Gov. Walz presented his proposed budget.

• March 31: Deadline for recommendations from the Legislative Salary Council.

• April 13-22: Easter-Passover break for the Minnesota Legislature.

• May 20: Deadline to end the 2019 legislative session.

• June 30: End of the fiscal year.

The budget

Unlike the federal government, Minnesota lawmakers cannot leave the 2019 session behind without passing a balanced, two-year budget. The every-odd-year battle is prescribed in the state Constitution, and without a deal by the end of the fiscal year in June, state government will shut down.

The budget will be the central debate of 2019. Minnesota had a projected $1.5 billion budget surplus in November, which went down to about a $1 billion surplus with the new economic forecast released in February. That's still a considerable contrast from eight years ago, when former Gov. Mark Dayton and a Republican-controlled Legislature faced a $6 billion budget deficit.

But surpluses come with their own challenges. Democrats have already hinted that they want to use the extra money to put more resources into things like health care and education, while Republicans see the surplus as a good excuse to consider more tax cuts next year. They'll have to find a compromise sometime in the next few months.

Update, Feb. 19: Gov. Tim Walz unveiled a nearly $50 billion, two-year budget plan on Tuesday that calls for raising the state's gas tax by 20 cents a gallon — about a 70 percent increase from the current tax — and for more spending on education and health care.

To turn his wish list into reality, Walz will need to get buy-in from a divided Minnesota Legislature.

Top issues to watch

Health care: Walz and the incoming House DFL majority want to address the rising cost of health care in some way this year. That will likely be wrapped into the budget debate, but they may also push to create a public buy-in option for Minnesotans through MinnesotaCare, a state insurance program for low-income residents. Republicans in the Senate are already pushing back on the idea, but expect plenty of debate.
Update, Jan. 16: Minnesota Senate Republicans unveiled a number of proposals on Jan. 16 that they say will eliminate some middlemen in the health care system and give Minnesotans cheaper options for care.
Update, Feb. 12: Slightly different bills to renew the "reinsurance" program advanced on Feb. 12 through committees in the Republican-controlled Senate and Democratic-led House. But critics are worried it will reduce pressure on state leaders to find a broader solution.

Education: Democrats also ran on education, both increased funding for state schools as well as closing Minnesota's persistent achievement gaps. Expect more specifics from lawmakers this week, but that's likely to look like more funding on the formula, and a closer look at early education options, as well as community schools that provide education and childcare all in one place.

Paid leave: Flanagan used a recent address to the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce to ask business community members to help pass some form of paid leave for workers this year. Earlier proposals have only addressed the state's workforce, but the discussion could broaden to all employers.
Update, Jan. 31: A DFL proposal would provide caregivers at least partial wage replacement for up to 12 weeks. The same benefit would be extended to parents upon the birth or adoption of a child. To pay for it, employers would face assessments toward a new state fund similar to unemployment insurance. And they would be barred from firing or demoting an employee who applies for leave.

Gun control: Minnesota's gun laws have remained mostly unchanged for years, with a strong tradition of recreational gun use in the state and a powerful lobbying force at the Capitol.
Update, Jan. 24: Democrats in the Minnesota Senate rolled out a series of gun control bills on Jan. 24 to expand background checks and block potentially dangerous individuals from getting a gun. They've been proposed before at the Capitol, where divided government and a strong gun lobby have thwarted efforts to change state gun laws.

But some political dynamics have shifted at the Capitol, and Democrats say they like their chances this year.

Gas tax: Walz has made raising the state's gas tax — for the first time in 10 years — a priority of his first term in office. That will be a tough sell to the Republicans in control of the Senate, who have said the surplus can be used for road and bridge projects.

Tax cuts: Republicans in the Senate are talking about tax cuts, especially after hearing the news of the budget surplus. They think most of that money should go back to Minnesotans, while Democrats are pushing to use it on new spending.

Sexual harassment: A bipartisan push to eliminate a strict legal standard to pursue a sexual harassment case in court failed in the Senate at the end of the last session, but House Speaker Hortman thinks there could be a compromise on the issue possible this year.
Update, Jan. 22: A bill that cleared a state senate committee Jan. 22 eliminates a more than 30-year-old exemption in state law that makes intentionally touching someone's clothing on and around their buttocks legal.
Update, Feb. 7: A bill moving in the Minnesota House would essentially eliminate that legal standard by adding a line to the state's Human Rights Act that "an intimidating, hostile, or offensive environment ... does not require the harassing conduct or communication to be severe or pervasive." The House Judiciary Committee approved the bill Feb. 7 by a unanimous vote, and it is now heading to the House floor.

Sleeper issues

Liquor in grocery stores: Just two years after Minnesota lawmakers voted to end a more-than-150-year-old ban on Sunday liquor sales, several lawmakers are now moving to lift restrictions on selling booze in convenience and grocery stores. A new coalition has formed to push the issue in 2019.

Legislator salaries: A new Legislative Salary Council is meeting again this year for the first time since it approved a $14,000 pay raise for all 201 legislators in 2017. Once again, they are constitutionally required to make a recommendation on legislator pay by the end of March. Ultimately, lawmakers will have to incorporate the recommendations into their budget proposal, which could be controversial.

Felon voting rights: In Minnesota, people with felony convictions cannot vote until they have completed all parts of their sentence and are released from supervision, even if they are out of prison. Groups have pushed for years to restore their rights to vote when incarceration ends. The effort has gotten bipartisan support in the past, but failed to make it to the finish line. Several groups feel the effort will have a renewed shot this year, especially with Secretary of State Steve Simon pushing for it as part of his legislative agenda.
Update, Feb. 13: The bill cleared its first test in the Minnesota House on Feb. 13. But despite promising prospects for passage in the DFL-controlled House, the bill faces long odds in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Sports betting: Sports betting is still illegal in Minnesota, and efforts to change that in the Legislature have fallen short. But last May, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a federal ban on sports betting, opening the door for more states to legalize it. Expect it resurface as an issue this year.
Update, Feb. 13: Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, said he's been in discussion with tribal representatives about working out an agreeable plan, acknowledging that nothing will advance without their blessing.