The Minnesota State Capitol will again be home to a split Legislature as lawmakers convene for the 2020 session on Feb. 11.
The dynamic of a Republican-controlled Senate and Democrat-controlled House, along with a looming campaign season, will continue to define the efforts of legislators. Three of them visited the council chambers at Edina City Hall Jan. 30 to outline their agendas and expectations.
In attendance were Sen. Melisa Franzen (D-Edina) of Senate District 49, Rep. Steve Elkins (D-Bloomington) of House District 49B and Rep. Heather Edelson (D-Edina) of House District 49A.
Mostly representing Edina and Bloomington, but also small parts of Minnetonka and Eden Prairie, the lawmakers took questions – read aloud by members of the League of Women Voters Edina – from a crowd that nearly filled the room.
Franzen predicted the influence of a presidential election year will be palpable as lawmakers consider one aspect of that process – the Minnesota Democratic Primary, set for March 3. In the state’s new primary system, voters will have to put their party affiliation on the record. A movement is afoot to require that data to stay private, but Franzen doesn’t give such a bill a strong chance of getting passed.
“Usually when it comes to election bills, the unwritten rule is that it has to be bipartisan to pass and be signed by the governor,” she explained. While Franzen wasn’t hopeful for a successful bill, she acknowledged the party affiliation data should be kept private.
Elkins has signed onto a bill that would allow voters to opt out of having their party affiliation shared. Edelson, too, expressed her support for such privacy, observing that Edina has many residents who vote for Republicans and Democrats on the same ticket.
“There’s got to be a better way to do it where you don’t have to say, ‘I’m a Democrat’ or ‘I’m a Republican,’” she said.
Another issue where a split Legislature is expected to prevent the passage of any bills is gun control. “I don’t have any hope for gun legislation, honestly, this session,” Edelson said.
Last session, the Democratic-controlled House passed bills to expand background checks and establish “red flag” laws meant to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous individuals, but they failed in the Senate.
The question of marijuana legalization has also been characterized by partisan divide, but there were also divergent opinions among the three Democrats at the Edina forum. Last year, Franzen introduced a bill that would have made Minnesota the 12th state to legalize marijuana for recreational use, but the bill did not get sufficient traction in the Senate.
Franzen said the bill is “dead” in that chamber and noted she is taking a “backseat” on the issue this session, “because I did start the conversation last year with my bill in the Senate, and I learned a lot and we continue to learn more.”
Edelson opposes legalization. “As somebody who’s a former therapist and somebody who works a lot in public health, I have to tell you that I have real concerns about legalization of marijuana, and at this time I think I would probably be a no vote, and I’ve made my caucus very clear about that,” she said.
A question from the audience asked what the lawmakers would do to prevent people from driving under the influence of marijuana. It would take a public education campaign, Franzen said, while arguing that the regulation that comes with legalization would help mitigate the dangers of the drug in its black market form, such as the risk of product contamination.
A task force led by House majority leader Ryan Winkler (D-Golden Valley) is studying the issues surrounding legalization, Elkins noted. “Certainly driving under the influence is one of the main issues that’s under discussion,” Elkins said. One challenge in that regard is the lack of a field sobriety test for marijuana, he added.
Local option sales tax
The three District 49 lawmakers also exhibited division over local option sales tax, a funding mechanism that, as Elkins noted, is being pursued by both Edina and Bloomington. It used to be that cities seeking to impose their own sales tax would have to get approval via referendum before going to the Legislature for final approval, but this year, that process has been flipped – the Legislature will have to approve cities’ individual requests before the question is put to voters.
Edelson was confident the question will make it onto the Edina ballot. “It will come to the voters of Edina,” she said. “ … In Edina, we’re barely getting bonding dollars, so it’s a good solution.”
Elkins, though, is dead-set against local sales taxes. He cited his experience with the National League of Cities, in which he saw the effects of the tax in the southern and western U.S., where it is more common.
“What you observe in those states,” he argued, “is that the cities compete with each other to attract retail. They end up granting (tax increment financing) incentives to attract retail to their communities. And so you see Walmart going into one city and extracting a huge subsidy. … And then 10 years later, they abandon that building and go into the adjacent city and build a brand new (Walmart).”
Elkins has another problem with local option sales tax.
“The reason this sales tax is so attractive to cities is the vast majority of it is paid by people who aren’t residents of the city,” he said. It reflects the mindset, “don’t tax you, don’t tax me, tax the guy behind the tree,” he illustrated.
The four cities represented at the forum each have regional shopping centers and thus stand to enjoy a substantial benefit from a local sales tax, Elkins noted. “But what about Richfield? What about Hopkins? What about all these smaller cities that don’t have tons of retail? I am very strongly opposed to this being done anywhere and will be working against it,” he declared.
In support of the tax, Franzen countered by saying most of the cities trying to take advantage of the option have been small towns trying to fill gaps in their budgets. Plus, she argued, if cities clamor for a local sales tax, it may “put more pressure on the state to pass a better bonding bill and pass more funding for roads and bridges and other infrastructure projects.”
Comprehensive sex ed
The lawmakers at last week’s forum continued their support for the Comprehensive Sex Education bill that has proved divisive along party lines, failing to garner support from the Senate.
In backing the bill, Edelson emphasized its focus on consent. “I want to make sure my sons know no means no,” she said.
Parents need to teach their children about the concept, she continued. “I promise you there’s a big portion of our population that doesn’t, and we need to make sure that those kids don’t end up incarcerated because we didn’t have a conversation in public school,” Edelson said.
Franzen, by contrast, expressed some concerns about the bill before ultimately declaring her support.
“I have to say, I did receive emails about it from constituents who were very concerned that their kids would hear all this information that they’re not comfortable someone outside of themselves provide,” she said.
“As a parent, I would be concerned as well. And can I opt out? Consent sounds great, but what else are we going to have in that curriculum? I’d be concerned about what’s in it, but I think what it sounds like would be reasonable.”
Elkins was more declarative in his support of the proposed sex ed programming. “All the empirical evidence says that kids who have this training have better sexual health,” he said.
The legislators touched on one of Edina’s hot-button issues when they addressed a question asking whether they support greater housing density, saying their influence in the matter is limited.
“Right now, the state doesn’t exert much control over what cities can do. The Met Council doesn’t really either,” Elkins said.
“Our city council is really the one who’s responsible for how dense our community is going to get,” Edelson explained.
But Elkins, who said he’s trying to eliminate approaches to zoning that prevent affordable housing, is hopeful he’s made enough inroads with the building industry and the League of Minnesota Cities to make progress on affordable housing at the state level. In support of those hopes, he referred to awards he recently received from both interest groups.
“The Venn diagram of legislators who have received awards from both of those organizations is a very small overlap,” he said. “I feel like I’ve got some political capital to spend with both organizations … to forge a compromise on these issues.”
While the partisan divide is expected to shape another legislative session, lawmakers do expect cooperation on some bills.
Health care is one area where “I think we can make some progress,” Elkins said. Both he and Franzen are working on bills regarding health care pricing transparency.
Reforms to the Department of Human Services should get some bipartisan support, Franzen predicted, noting the issue is a priority for Senate Republicans.
Elkins, meanwhile, believes his efforts to make transportation and city websites more accessible to people with disabilities will get support from both parties. He said the same about data privacy measures he is pushing, as well as the zoning matters, although he admitted those bills might not get passed this year.
“They’re just so complicated that I understand that I’m putting a ton of time into multi-year projects,” Elkins said.
What should also see bipartisan support are efforts in criminal justice reform that are exploring alternatives to incarceration for people who are primary caregivers, Edelson said.
With vastly differing proposals coming out of the Democratic governor’s office, the majority Democrat House and the majority Republican Senate, it is unclear what kind of bonding bill will be passed this year. Franzen noted that Gov. Tim Walz has proposed $2 billion in bonding, while the House is proposing $3 billion and the Senate, $1 billion.
“It’s going to take time to align and finalize because there’s going to be a lot of people that are not happy and a lot of projects that are not going to be included at the end of the day,” Franzen said. “ … You have to fight like heck to make sure what you want is in the bill.”
Edina is seeking money for upgrades to its South Metro Public Safety Training Facility, while Bloomington projects seeking funds include an art center and construction at Normandale Community College.
“It’s going to be really hard to move them,” Franzen said.
Also, any bill having to do with climate change or other environmental matters won’t go far, Edelson predicted, “because it won’t go anywhere else in the Senate.”
As they work to represent their communities, legislators will be itching to hit the campaign trail, Franzen said. That’s why this year’s session is shorter than usual, she explained: “Everybody wants to do the job and go campaign.”
– Follow Andrew Wig on Twitter @EdinaSunCurrent