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A 'fast and furious' legislative session

ST. PAUL — Lawmakers are bracing for a short and intense legislative session when they return to St. Paul on Tuesday.

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A tax on wholesale gas sales is being considered as a way to pay for road and bridge repairs in Minnesota. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
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ST. PAUL — Lawmakers are bracing for a short and intense legislative session when they return to St. Paul on Tuesday.

"It should be fast and furious," said Sen. Dan Sparks, DFL-Austin.

The session will be one of the shortest in recent history, lasting only 10 weeks. Adding to the challenge will be lawmakers' work environment. Only the Minnesota House chamber will be open in the Capitol, with the rest of the building shutdown as part of a $310 million restoration effort. Senators will gather in a makeshift chamber in the newly-opened Senate Office Building across the street from the Capitol.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agree the logistical headaches and short timeframe mean legislators will have to narrow their focus this year. Rochester GOP Sen. Dave Senjem said the recent record turnout during the presidential caucuses last week proves voters are keeping a close eye on their elected representatives and expect results.

"People are looking at us (elected officials), state and federal and even local now, a little harder than ever, and It's up to us to step up to the plate and perform," Senjem said.

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Here's a look at just some of the issues lawmakers expect to be debating this session.

Body cameras

More police departments across the state are deploying police body cameras, including the Rochester Police Department. In recent years, lawmakers have struggled to put together a policy detailing when those cameras should be turned on and whether the footage is public.

The debate has historically pitted groups seeking greater police accountability against privacy rights advocates and law enforcement. With more departments getting cameras, the pressure continues to build on lawmakers to pass some type of body cam regulation.

Broadband

Expect a heavy push by some lawmakers and greater Minnesota organizations for funding to build high-speed internet infrastructure in rural areas. The state has a projected $900 million budget surplus and some are pushing for a chunk of that money to go to broadband.

The governor's broadband task force has recommended investing $200 million in broadband this year. Dayton has said he supports $100 million in funding for broadband.

Construction projects

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In even-numbered years, the Minnesota Legislature historically passes a large statewide construction borrowing bill, also known as a "bonding bill."

Several southeast Minnesota projects are vying to be part of the funding package. The list of projects includes $5 million to expand the U.S. customs facility at Rochester International Airport, $20 million for demolition and renovation at Rochester Community & Technical College and $3.6 million to repair the historic Lanesboro Dam — just to name a few. Competition for bonding money is expected to be fierce, with the number of requested dollars outpacing the expected money available nearly four-to-one.

DFL Gov. Mark Dayton has proposed a $1.4 billion bonding package. House Republicans are pushing for a significantly smaller figure. GOP House Speaker Kurt Daudt said he'd like to see an $850 million proposal.

Early childhood education

The governor has made clear one of his priorities this session is getting increased funding for early childhood education. He has supported a proposal to provide universal pre-K for four-year-olds in the state.

That plan failed to gain traction in last year's legislative session. In his budget proposal, Dayton earmarked $200 in new funding for early-childhood education. Republicans have criticized the idea of universal pre-K run by the public school system. Some GOP lawmakers are expected to push this session for a boost in pre-K scholarships to help parents pay for preschool.

Gun regulations

Rochester DFL Rep. Kim Norton is sponsoring several bills seeking to boost gun regulations.

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Proposals include requiring universal background checks for people buying handguns and military-style assault rifles and extended waiting periods. Those proposals are expected to face heavy opposition from Republicans and gun rights groups.

High-speed rail

The battle over a proposed high-speed rail line from Rochester to the Twin Cities is expected to continue in St. Paul this spring.

Mazeppa GOP Rep. Steve Drazkowski has said he plans to push ahead with a bill that would prohibit public funding for the rail line. It would also prohibit the use of eminent domain to build the line and requires a private rail developer to provide financial assurances before the project can be built.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation and Olmsted County recently announced they were suspending work on the publicly-funded Zip Rail proposal. However, a private company — North American High Speed Rail Group — is studying whether to move ahead with a privately-funded, elevated high-speed rail line linking Rochester to the Twin Cities.

MNsure

Supporters and critics of the state's health insurance exchange, MNsure, agree on one thing: They don't expect any major changes to the program to pass this year.

Last session, some Republicans advocated scrapping the program entirely and moving to the federal exchange. Meanwhile, Democrats defended the state-run system, arguing that while improvements are still needed, it's better to have a Minnesota-run program.

Given the political divide on the issue, legislators interviewed said they expect little will be decided relative to MNsure. A state health care task force recently recommended keeping MNsure.

Real ID

Democrats and Republicans alike expect lawmakers to act quickly on legislation allowing the Minnesota Department of Public Safety to take steps to prepare for implementation of Real Id. Minnesota's driver's license do not comply with the federal Real ID Act of 2005, which was based on recommendations from the 9/11 commission.

Federal officials have given the state until 2018 to get their driver's licenses into compliance. After that, Minnesotans will no longer be allowed to board commercial flights without a Real ID-compliant legislation.

Tax cuts

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agree passing a tax bill will be one of the top priorities this session.

Legislative leaders failed to reach a deal on tax cuts last session. Republicans have said they'll be pushing hard for a plan that phases out taxes on Social Security income and military pension benefits. GOP leaders are also seeking to phase out the commercial/industrial property tax.

Democrats say they would like to see tax cuts focused on helping the middle class and not wealthy Minnesotans. They are also urging caution when it comes to tax cuts that will have long-term costs to the state, warning it could result in budget problems down the road.

Transportation

Months of legislative work to pass a comprehensive transportation package ended in gridlock last session.

Among the big areas of disagreement is how to pay for the upgrades. Senate Democrats and the governor supported a gas tax hike. Republicans oppose any tax increases for transportation, instead favoring a plan to dedicate existing auto-related tax revenue to transportation.

Expect the debate over how best to fund transportation improvements to continue. Another area of disagreement is whether major investments in transit should be part of the final package. House Republicans contend the focus should be strictly on roads and bridges. Democrats argue that the only way to fully address the state's long-term transportation needs is to include transit in the mix.

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