The Minnesota Legislature’s 2020 session kicked off at noon, Feb. 11. The session, being the second year of the biennium, is expected to be less a policy session and focused on the passage of a bonding bill. The Sun Post spoke with Speaker of the House Melissa Hortman (D-Brooklyn Park), Sen. Chris Eaton (D-Brooklyn Center), and Reps. Samantha Vang (D-Brooklyn Center) and Micheal Nelson (D-Brooklyn Park) to hear a preview of their plans for this session.

The big picture

Hortman, now in her second session as Speaker of the House, characterized the session as the second chapter of an existing book. The Legislature will be tasked to not only address the bonding bill and where to spend the budget surplus, but it is also a time for Democrats to send a message to voters about what the party stands for, she said. Even though there will likely be some bills that the Republican-led Senate will not send to the governor’s desk, this session will be an opportunity to show voters each party’s vision of the state’s future, she said.

Bonding bill

While Gov. Tim Walz has proposed a $2 billion bonding bill, House Democrats will likely be proposing the largest responsible bonding bill it can while maintaining a AAA bond rating, Hortman said.

This may be a place where the two parties are able to find bipartisan agreement, according to Hortman. Generally, there seems to be support for investments in wastewater treatment infrastructure and in higher education, she said.

While Republicans walked out on bonding discussions last session, Hortman said she hopes that Republicans commit to finishing bonding bill discussions this session.

Vang, who serves on the capital investment division, didn’t commit to any specific projects in the bonding bill, but said there are projects ranging from rural water systems to improvements at higher education institutions. “By the end of the bonding tour during the off-session, we will have viewed over 200 projects,” she said. “ I will prioritize projects that require our immediate attention and serve our regional population throughout the state.”

Both Eaton and Nelson said they plan to support the Center for Innovation and the Arts project, which is proposed adjacent to the Brooklyn Park Library, across from North Hennepin Community College. The project is a collaborative effort and includes the City of Brooklyn Park, Metropolitan State University, North Hennepin Community College, and Osseo Area Schools.

Similarly, both Nelson and Eaton said they planned to advocate for $50 million in funding for the Highway 252 freeway conversion project.

Blue Line

All four representatives said they still support moving forward the Bottineau Blue Line Light Rail extension project. Much of the line is proposed to run in BNSF Railway’s right-of-way, and the rail line has been refusing to negotiate with the project office.

Hortman said she has focused her recent light rail efforts on ensuring that the Southwest Light Rail project gets its full funding grant agreement from the Federal Transportation Administration. According to Hortman, Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao has considered taking project funding away from Democrat-led states. Once the Southwest project has secured its funding, the Bottineau line can move forward, she said.

BNSF is known for the same stalling tactics for other proposed rail lines that it is using for the Bottineau line and the railway often changes its positions over time, she said.

The Bottineau project has time to deal with its BNSF right-of-way agreement because the FTA is not yet prepared to award the project its full funding grant agreement, she added.

Education

Hortman said this session there needs to be a deeper discussion regarding the opportunity gap and what can be done to address it.

“We have such a rich and diverse community,” she said.

Policy decisions beyond the K-12 level were addressed by Vang, who is a member of the Higher Education Finance and Policy Committee. “Within the higher education committee, we will look into improving policies to protect students from being left to fend for their own due to the closure of for-profit schools, addressing student concerns around having more agency and voice within their higher institutions, and revisiting the state grant program to further meet the financial need of students,” she said.

Insulin, other projects

The Legislature needs to address insulin costs for Minnesotans this year, both Hortman and Eaton said. Republicans appear to be moving closer to the Democrats’ position that medical manufacturers need to play a role in reducing the costs for consumers, Hortman said.

Nelson, who chairs the State Government Finance Division, said he would again this session look at access federal dollars for Minnesota’s Secretary of State to spend on election security.

With the Agriculture and Food Finance Committee, Vang said she hopes to look at how to open new markets for farmers.

“In addition, the agriculture economy is a significant contributor to climate change, thus we’ll be looking at ways we can help farmers combat, mitigate, and adapt to climate change,” she said.

Eaton plans to continue her work on the Opioid Prescribing Work Group, which essentially sends report cards to doctors based on their levels of opioid prescriptions. While deaths related to opioids dropped last year, fentanyl, particularly when found in illicit drugs, continues to cause deaths, she said.

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