Gun debate begins as Legislature begins 2018 work
ST. PAUL — Minnesota lawmakers will be drawn into a gun debate that has blossomed since last week's Florida school shooting that left 17 dead.
Protect Minnesota, an anti-gun violence group, will lead a Capitol rotunda rally at 2 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 22. Among legislation those at the rally will oppose are giving gun owners more freedom to defend themselves and to carry guns without permits.
"The devastating school shooting in Parkland, Fla., underscores once again the need to keep guns out of dangerous hands," Executive Director the Rev. Nancy Nord Bence of Protect Minnesota said. "We must restore balance in this country between the right to bear arms and the right to be safe from gun violence."
Bence said that while school shootings receive a lot of attention, "every day" shootings claim more lives. She said that in 2016, 432 gun deaths were reported in Minnesota, more than by opioids or traffic accidents. The majority of gun deaths were in greater Minnesota and many were suicides, she added.
Those at the rally will face the Republican-controlled House and Senate, which generally favors gun rights.
The gun issue will be one issue that will arise throughout the session. Another will be taxes.
The House Taxes Committee begins discussing how to deal with new federal tax law a couple of hours before the 2018 session begins. It resumes the work Thursday, taking public testimony on the subject.
The Senate Taxes Committee tackles the same subject Wednesday.
Senate Tax Chairman Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes, has held tax town halls with local senators in January and February.
"This is our No. 1 priority for 2018," Chamberlain said. "We have a historic opportunity to simplify our tax code and help more Minnesotans keep more of their paychecks."
A Wednesday Senate hearing deals with abuse of elderly residents in nursing homes, one of the major issues of the year. A Star Tribune report showed many senior citizens were mistreated.
A House committee Thursday considers the first of several bills written to combat opioid painkiller abuse.
On Wednesday, one of the big national movements will be addressed: sexual misconduct.
Every House member is required to take anti-sexual misconduct training on Wednesday, or House Speaker Kurt Daudt says he will yank their committee assignments.
Sexual misconduct allegations forced Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, and Sen. Dan Schoen, D-St. Paul Park, to resign. Their replacements will be sworn in as the Legislature begins its 2018 run.
Lawmakers have until May 21 to finish their work for the year. Since they passed a two-year budget last year, they are expected to only make spending tweaks this session.
Legislative leaders predict anything from $600 million to $1 billion in a budget surplus.
A new report at the end of February will update lawmakers and the Dayton administration about how the budget may look. A similar report late in 2017 said the state would face a $188 million deficit.
Greater Minnesota city leaders want lawmakers to increase aid they receive.
Since 2002, cities have asked for more state aid. That was when their state payments were cut to help balance Minnesota's budget. The Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities is asking the Legislature to up aid $30.5 million to bring cities back to the 2002 level.
However, they face opposition from many Republicans, who control the House and Senate. Many in the GOP oppose Local Government Aid, especially in larger cities like Minneapolis, St. Paul and Duluth, which they say have enough of a tax base that they should not need state aid.
Bemidji City Councilman Ron Johnson said cities need the help.
"Our city is prudent, we squeeze extra mileage out of our vehicles and try to be mindful about the amount our residents pay in fees and taxes, but we have necessary expenses," Johnson said. "Nothing costs the same as it did in 2002 when there was more LGA to go around."
Johnson said Bemidji, like other cities, reacted to the drop in LGA by doing things like decreasing park maintenance. Then, he added, city officials began to keep police cars, fire trucks, street sweepers and other equipment longer than they should.
Granite Falls Mayor Dave Smiglewski, president of the coalition, said his city spent $50,000 to rent a fire truck for a couple of years because the LGA cut made it impossible to buy a new one.
Greater Minnesota city leaders also say they need state public works money, obtained by the state selling bonds, to improve their clean-water facilities.
City Administrator Jon Radermacher of Little Falls said his community needs a sewage treatment plant renovation that will cost at least $17 million.
"If we don't receive grant funding, our rates will nearly triple," Radermacher said. "We have no choice but to upgrade our plant, so this funding is absolutely critical."