Lots of new faces, many familiar issues as Legislature convenes

The Minnesota House meets during the final week of the legislative session.
The 2019 legislative session gets underway Tuesday with a new power dynamic at the Capitol.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2017

As lawmakers begin their 2019 session at noon Tuesday, many of the issues they face will be holdovers from past years, while a new group of leaders will be tasked with addressing them.

The session begins with a new governor, Tim Walz, the first Democrat to succeed another Democrat who served eight years in the state's top elected office. Unlike former Gov. Mark Dayton, Walz will have a House in DFL hands for the first time in four years.

Most of the work over the next four and a half months will be on crafting a new two-year state budget. Leaders are hoping they can avoid some of the budget breakdowns of the past few years, and a projected $1.5 billion surplus may help.

Melissa Hortman, an eight-term representative from Brooklyn Park, is poised to be the new speaker of the Minnesota House. Hortman is promising changes in the way legislative business is conducted.

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"There are two things we're trying to accomplish. One is more transparency, so the public gets to see what we're doing. All the big decisions should get made in the public eye if we can at all have that happen. And then two is to bump up the timeline for conflict," Hortman said.

House Democrats plan to roll out 10 bills this week that reflect their session priorities. Their list includes education, gun safety, a MinnesotaCare buy-in option, paid family leave and public infrastructure.

Hortman blames a faulty process for last year's veto of a massive supplemental budget bill. She wants to avoid the end-of-session chaos seen in recent years by setting earlier deadlines for reaching budget agreements.

"My proposal would be that we have to decide joint budget targets with the governor, the Republican Senate and the Democratic House by May 1st."

Hortman and other legislative leaders are looking at ways to resurrect some of the noncontroversial provisions from the last session's vetoed budget bill and pass them again early in the session.

Walz supports the concept.

"The normal process is broken, if you will, as what we've accepted as the new norm of a budget that is kind of unveiled with no one knowing what's in it, then the battle until the last week and the late hour omnibuses," he said. "I've signaled during both the campaign and then post-election that I have a real desire to do that differently."

The process won't be the only challenge for Walz. His potential plans for transportation funding and health care will face strong opposition from Senate Republicans.

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said Senate Republicans plan to highlight five bill introductions this week that address some of their top issues including child care, elder care and government accountability. He said lining up state tax law with the new federal law is also on the list, after it didn't get done last year.

And despite his differences with Walz on some key issues, Gazelka is optimistic about working with the new governor.

"He's going to push for a gas tax, and we're going to oppose that. If he continues to push for MinnesotaCare or government-run health care for everyone, we'll oppose that," Gazelka said. "But there's a lot of things that we both agree on. So, in the end we're going to push for some things I'm sure he's not going to agree with either."

Gazelka added: "Tax conformity has to get done. The federal government changed the laws, and if we don't adapt to them Minnesota loses out. So, we have to work on that."