8 big issues still on the table as Legislature hits home stretch

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Senators work on the floor Monday Feb. 27, 2017 in St. Paul.
With four weeks left in the 2019 legislative session, there are a lot of big issues still unresolved.
Glen Stubbe | Star Tribune via AP 2017

Minnesota lawmakers return from an eight-day break on Tuesday and head into the final sprint of the 2019 legislative session.

The DFL-led House and Republican-controlled Senate have been moving their major policy and budget bills ahead since January.

The two parties have agreed on some issues, and they're close on a few others. But they're also setting up end-of-session clashes on most of the more polarizing issues of the session.

With lawmakers required to adjourn the regular session by May 20, here's a look at where some of the major issues stand.

1) Opioid crisis

Status: In final negotiations between the House and Senate.

What's happening: The House and Senate have now both passed bills that raise $20 million to start addressing the opioid epidemic by creating a new registration fee for drug distributors and manufacturers.

But the Senate bills drops that fee in the event of a legal settlement between the state and an opioid manufacturer. The House bill does not, and that sticking point has delayed a final agreement.

2) Election security funding

Status: Stalled in House and Senate negotiations.

What's happening: Minnesota is the last state to access federal election security funding from the 2018 federal Help America Vote Act, after a measure to do so last year was vetoed in a large budget bill.

This year, the divided House and Senate can't agree on just how much to allow the secretary of state to access. The House proposal lets the state tap all $6.6 million that's available from the federal government, but the Senate wants to move slower, authorizing just $1.5 million now. The bill has been stuck in conference committee for weeks, and there's no end in sight to the disagreement.

3) Legal recreational marijuana

Status: Likely stalled for the year.

What's happening: In March, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on a bill to decriminalize, legalize and regulate marijuana in Minnesota. The Republican-controlled panel promptly rejected the bill, as well as an amendment to study in the interim how recreational marijuana would work in Minnesota.

Meanwhile, the DFL-controlled House has yet to hold a single hearing on the measure. It looks likely the issue won't go anywhere this session.

4) Paid family leave

Status: Readying for a vote in the House, but not the Senate.

What's happening: DFL Rep. Laurie Halverson has probably already broken a record for most time spent in committee talking about a single bill, traveling all session to various committees to argue on behalf of her bill that creates a statewide paid leave fund filled by employers and employees.

It's poised to head to final negotiations in the House, but Senate Republicans have not advanced the proposal in committees, and some members are expressing concerns about how much it will cost. The paid family leave proposal is also included in the House Jobs and Economic Development budget bill.

5) Gas tax increase

Status: Moving in a House budget bill.

What's happening: In February, Walz got the ball rolling on the transportation funding when he pitched a 20-cent-per-gallon gas tax increase to pay for road and bridge projects over the next decade.

The House followed suit, introducing a similar transportation plan that phases a 20-cent increase over four years instead of the two the governor proposes.

But Senate Republicans have been emphatically opposed to raising the tax and did not include it in their transportation budget bill.

6) Health care buy-in option

Status: Moving in a House budget bill.

What's happening: It was a top priority for Walz and Democrats in the House on the campaign trail — create a public buy-in option to lower the cost of health care. That priority materialized into the OneCare plan, pitched by Walz, that would allow anyone to buy into a public option if they get their insurance on the individual marketplace.

House Democrats put that proposal into a health and human services budget bill, but Senate Republicans remain skeptical. They've said there's no evidence the proposal will actually lower the cost of premiums for people on the marketplace, and they're more interested in a bill that would continue a reinsurance program that pays insurance companies to buy down the cost of premiums.

7) Gun control

Status: Moving in a House budget bill.

What's happening: The House held hearings on two gun control bills this year, one that would establish what are called red flag protection orders to take guns away from those deemed a danger to themselves or others, and another to expand background checks to gun shows and other private transfers.

But the Senate hasn't heard either of those bills in committee, so the House tucked them into a budget bill for public safety, meaning both will travel into end-of-session negotiations on the state budget.

8) 20-week abortion ban

Status: Moving in a Senate budget bill.

What's happening: Like with the gun bills, the Senate held hearings on a bill to ban abortions 20 weeks after fertilization except in cases where the pregnancy could cause death or serious physical harm.

The Senate heard that bill in committee, but House Democrats didn't hold any hearings on the proposal, so the Senate tucked it into a broader health and human services bill that will head to final negotiations.

Signed: Hands-free cellphone driving requirement

After years of back-and-forth, the House and Senate this month agreed to legislation that bars people from using their cellphone for texts, calls or any other communications while operating a motor vehicle unless the device is in hands-free mode.

Gov. Tim Walz signed the bill into law shortly after, and the state is now embarking on a public education campaign before the new rules kick in Aug. 1.

Has the Legislature been productive this year? Share your thoughts