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As new session starts, here's what's at stake at the Minnesota Legislature

Lawmakers convened – some remotely – Tuesday for the 92nd regular session.

After months of special sessions, the Minnesota Legislature is back for its 92nd regular session – albeit it'll be anything but regular, though some things seem exactly the same.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, lawmakers have been meeting monthly since last year's regular legislative session ended in May, so when the legislature reconvened on Tuesday it lacked some of that opening day excitement, especially as some attended remotely and swearing-in ceremonies were virtual.

Meanwhile, the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul is still surrounded by a chain-link fence that was erected following the police killing of George Floyd and the building is closed to visitors due to COVID-19.

But unlike the past 10 months, the 201 lawmakers – many of them remotely – in the still-divided Legislature will tackle wider-ranging issues between now and when they're scheduled to adjourn on May 17. 

Here's a look at some of the main issues the Legislature is expected to work on this year. 

COVID-19 

The COVID-19 pandemic and how to keep Minnesotans safe while support the economy will surely be a hot topic during this year's session – and will likely weave its way into many discussions at the Capitol.

"I don't know how we go through this session without that front and center," Sen. Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul, said, according to the Star Tribune. "We have so much work to do to end the crisis, heal us up and to build for our future."

COVID-related topics this session could include further help for small businesses and removing the governor's emergency powers (more on that below).

And on Tuesday, COVID-19 safety protocols were already an issue in the Republican-controlled Senate with several senators reportedly not wearing masks. 

Budget

There are really only two things the Legislature has to get done this session. One of them is passing a two-year budget so the government can keep running beyond June 30. 

But that could be tricky. Although the state's most recent budget forecast was an improvement from the previous one, lawmakers are still working with a projected $1.27 billion deficit for the two-year budget that begins July 1. (Another budget forecast is expected in February.)

So, the House and Senate will have to work together to agree on a state budget for the next two years while also balancing the projected deficit. 

And according to Session Daily, everything is currently on the table, but additional federal stimulus money could "dramatically" affect lawmakers' budget decisions, said House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley.

It remains to be seen if lawmakers can pass a budget before the session ends on May 17. In four of the past five budget years, a special session was required to pass the budget bills, Session Daily notes. 

Redistricting

The other must-do item on the Legislature's to-do list (it's required in state law to do so every 10 years) is to redraw the legislative and congressional district lines so each has a nearly equal population, based on the 2020 Census. 

But if history is any indication, this might not go smoothly either (especially with a divided Legislature). For the past 30 or so years, the House, Senate and governor have failed to agree on a redistricting plan and instead have turned to the courts to redraw the districts, MinnPost reports

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, has said he's optimistic about the Legislature getting the job done, the publication said. 

What's more, it's also possible that Minnesota will lose a congressional district because the state's population hasn't grown as quickly as other states. 

And the Legislature will likely have less time than normal to work on redistricting because the specific Census data states use to redraw districts may not get to them before the regular session ends in May, MinnPost reported in December

Walz's emergency powers

Gov. Tim Walz's emergency powers will likely come up early on in the session seeing as for the majority of the pandemic, Republicans and some Democrats have sought to remove his powers.

State law allows a governor to declare a peacetime emergency for 30 days, and then extend that emergency beyond that if needed. The Legislature gets the opportunity to terminate the governor's powers with a majority vote from each chamber. 

Walz declared a peacetime emergency due to COVID-19 on March 13, and has extended it every 30 days since. The governor has said the emergency declaration gives the state flexibility to respond to the pandemic, but his critics have said he's gone too far with his executive orders. 

Sen. Gazelka has said removing the governor's emergency powers are among the priorities for the Senate GOP Caucus. 

While the GOP-controlled Senate may have enough votes to revoke the governor's powers, it doesn't appear enough Democrats in the House are in favor of it. House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said she believes the House will uphold his emergency powers but noted they could modify some of his orders, media reports say. 

“I’m looking forward to a day where emergency powers are lifted and the governor feels like we can get there,” Gazelka said, according to MinnPost. “I’m hoping that it’s sooner rather than later.”

Meanwhile, Daudt said he wants to see Walz's powers replaced with a framework that gives legislators control over business closures, the Star Tribune said.

Other topics lawmakers have expressed interest in addressing this session include addressing educational disparities and race relations, election law, law enforcement, health care, economic security and taxes.

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