Capitol preview: Upcoming budget forecast could define MN Legislature's work this session

Minnesota State House representatives stood for the Pledge of Allegiance.
Minnesota State House representatives stood for the Pledge of Allegiance at the start of the legislative session on Feb. 11 at the State Capitol in St. Paul.
Anthony Souffle | Star Tribune via AP file

This week will help define the rest of the Minnesota Legislature’s 2020 session as state budget officials release a new economic forecast that will determine how much of a budget surplus lawmakers have to work with.

There could also be big votes on legislation dealing with insulin and next week’s presidential primary.

Budget forecast

Thursday’s forecast will be the last broad look that DFL Gov. Tim Walz and the Legislature will get on the economy’s condition.

When lawmakers began the session, there was a projected $1.3 billion surplus. But that estimate released in December didn’t factor in a cooling of the trade tariff battle with China, which has had many Minnesota farmers and manufacturers on edge.

Meanwhile, there are also growing concerns that the COVID-19 coronavirus could have ramifications for the global economy. Also, experts have been warning for some time that a slowdown might not be far off. Low unemployment is making it hard for employers to fill job vacancies, too.

Budget negotiations

There are vast philosophical differences between what Capitol Democrats and Republicans have in mind.

The DFL-led House has proposed some one-time spending measures, including $500 million for preschool scholarships, child care assistance grants and other pre-kindergarten initiatives.

The Republican-controlled Senate has countered with a package of proposed tax cuts — a reduction in the lowest income tax rate, education and agricultural tax credits and an elimination of any state income tax on Social Security benefits.

Meanwhile, Walz has been hinting he’ll push to bolster state reserves in case of a downturn. But he’s made new spending proposals — from broadband expansion to disaster planning — that would consume tens of millions of dollars.

After the budget forecast is released Thursday, Walz will issue his plans for the money in the weeks to follow. Lawmakers will pass their own proposals before any negotiations can begin. If there is no movement toward a middle ground, that surplus money could just stack up for next year, when lawmakers need to put together another two-year budget.

Insulin access and affordability

A House proposal is expected to come up for a vote as soon as midweek. It would create an emergency program for people with diabetes who are running low on insulin due to financial reasons. It would also establish a long-term program for people continually struggling to afford insulin.

The programs would be paid for through new fees on drug manufacturers. The House bill differs from Senate legislation, mainly in who pays and who is eligible. But bills are moving along, which has kept hopes of an agreement alive.

Safeguards for voter data

Minnesota’s presidential primary is March 3. Voters who participate will request either a Republican and Democratic ballot. As it stands, the four major political parties — that includes two pro-marijuana parties — will know which ballot each voter takes. And there isn’t much limitation on what they can do with it.

A House bill slated for a vote this week would allow voters to opt-out of the data sharing. Information that is passed along couldn’t be sold or widely distributed by the parties, which would face penalties if they did. Late last week, top Senate Republicans released their own version that would classify the data as private.

The parties would still get the rosters, but misuse of the voter information would carry steep fines. It would seem an agreement is coming into focus, which matters because some people are watching for a resolution to the issue before deciding if they’ll vote at all.

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