Minn. lawmakers welcomed back with asks ranging from gun restrictions to immigrant drivers licenses

The Minnesota Legislature on Tuesday kicked off the start of the 2020 legislative session.

Gun control advocates and gun rights supporters greeted lawmakers and others as they walked toward the Minnesota Senate on the first day of the 2020 legislative session, Tuesday, Feb. 11. Dana Ferguson / Forum News Service
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ST. PAUL — Gun control advocates cheered and held up "Welcome Back" signs as lawmakers funneled through Capitol hallways to the Minnesota House of Representatives and Senate chamber.

Chants calling for lawmakers to take up a plan to provide driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants reverberated through the Senate as lawmakers bowed their heads in an opening prayer.

And diabetics and family members of those concerned about affording insulin for themselves or others again filled a hearing room as lawmakers debated setting up an emergency insulin program for those who couldn't afford the hormone.

It was a busy day at the Capitol as lawmakers buckled in for the nearly four-month legislative session and as interest groups rallied, held news conferences and otherwise tried to get to the top of legislators' priority lists on the first day of the 2020 session.

Unlike last year, Minnesota lawmakers don't have a constitutional responsibility to accomplish anything in 2020. The state's two-year budget is set. And while legislative leaders have said they'll prioritize a multibillion dollar borrowing plan to take on a series of public projects, it's not required.


And within minutes of the session's start, one lawmaker, Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, called on his colleagues to close out the legislative session in an effort to avoid the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party's plans for Minnesotans.

"We should adjourn the session now and protect Minnesotans from what’s about to come," Drazkowski said.

The effort failed on a bipartisan basis. And lawmakers continued about the business set to take up the next 14 weeks. They'll weigh a multi-billion dollar public works plan, what to do with a $1.3 billion budget surplus and a slate of policy proposals.

Legislative leaders on Tuesday said conversations at the Capitol would reflect what was going on on the campaign trail as all 201 legislative seats will be on the ballot in November, but said they'd push to keep policy talks within the realm of what can reasonably pass a divided Legislature.

"We're only going to select a handful of things that we think we should do that they don't want to do," Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, told reporters on the Senate floor. "There are going to be some battle lines, but when you see opportunities to get something done that everybody agrees on, we should do that."

While gun control advocates and supporters of the proposal to provide driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants waited in the hallways outside the chamber, Gazelka said they shouldn't hold out hope. On issues like a bonding bill or emergency insulin plan, he signaled that Senate Republicans would be more eager to work across the aisle.

Democrats who control the Minnesota House of Representatives, meanwhile, went straight to taking up priority bills including legislation to create an emergency insulin program, blocking the state from standing in the way of local restrictions on plastic bags, capping probation sentences for certain crimes and allowing cities to set their own pesticide restrictions.

"This session, we will spend some time articulating our vision for Minnesota, and some of that won’t become law. We know that. But rather than dismiss it as just politics, I think it’s important to elevate what we do in a democracy," House Speaker Melissa Hortman, D-Brooklyn Park, said. "It’s about telling Minnesotans what we would do if we had a Democratic Senate and making clear where the future is going."


Emergency insulin plan advances on Day 1

Gazelka on the Senate floor said he viewed creating an emergency insulin program as one area where legislators could work together to find an agreement. The House last year approved an emergency program for uninsured diabetics and those who couldn't afford the drug. That chamber held hearings on the proposal within the first hours of the new session and passed the measure out of the House Commerce Committee.

"We have heard from the public on what's not working and what's not working is what we have in place today," Rep. Laurie Halverson, D-Eagan, said ahead of her committee's vote on that proposal.

Advocates for the program, including family members of those who've died from side effects of rationing or not taking insulin due to its cost, again crowded the hearing room Tuesday and asked lawmakers to quickly reach an agreement. A Senate committee is set to take up a plan to provide insulin uninsured diabetics later this week.

Gun control groups seek new path in Capitol

Advocates from Moms Demand Action greeted lawmakers as they returned to the House and Senate on Tuesday morning and chanted outside the House and Senate chambers, in hopes of getting lawmakers' attention on the first day. They also hoisted signs that spelled out "Welcome Back" and "Protect kids, not guns."

Democrats have put forth two measures aimed at increasing background checks on gun sales and transfers and allowing law enforcement to remove a person's guns if they are believed to pose a danger to themselves or others. And gun control groups Everytown for Gun Safety and Moms Demand have said they plan to  spend $250,000  over the next several months on an ad buy aimed at getting lawmakers on the fence about the issue to support the bills.

Gun rights groups have said they're also fundraising in an effort to block the passage of the measures in the divided Legislature. A handful of gun rights supporters on Tuesday stood alongside gun control advocates in the Capitol, hoisting signs that emphasized their desire to maintain their right to carry a firearm.

"We'll never be able to outspend them, but we are very successful at mobilizing the grassroots," Rob Doar, political director of the Minnesota Gun Owners' Caucus, said. "We've held our own against out-of-state money before."

Hortman on Tuesday said her caucus would pass and send the bills to the Senate for their consideration. And unlike last year, the measures would come separate from budget bills. Gazelka on Tuesday said his chamber likely wouldn't take up the bills as they wouldn't have support in the Senate. Instead, the Senate would take up conversations about local spending on public safety, Gazelka said.


An early ask for significant funding for local projects

Even before the new session officially started, lawmakers weighed early requests for capital infrastructure investments.

Minnesota Management and Budget Commissioner Myron Frans early Tuesday urged members of the House committee set to take up a bonding bill to consider a sizable spend for public projects this year.

"It is important that we don’t kick this can down the road," Frans said, by investing in capital infrastructure this year. "I think the key is to be committed to make sure that we keep Minnesota as a triple-A (bond rating) state."

Gov. Tim Walz has put forth a  $2 billion plan  to fund primarily  affordable housingwater infrastructurehigher education, equitypublic safety and quality of life . House Democrats meanwhile have said the state should take advantage of interest rates around 1% and borrow $3.5 billion. Senate Republicans, who hold a majority in that chamber, meanwhile, have called for a lower price tag on that bill at closer to  $1 billion  to avoid the expense to the state of paying back debt service.

Forum News Service reporter Sarah Mearhoff contributed to this report.

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