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Legislative update, week 9: Revised budget forecast, bipartisan gun bill?

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Minnesota state lawmakers have less than three months or so to finalize a budget for the next biennium, but state finance officials got a bit of good news last week that dramatically shifts the debate: The projected deficit for the next two years is only $627 million, well under the $1.1 billion forecasted in November.

Gov. Mark Dayton had used the much larger figure in crafting a budget proposal that contained sweeping tax reform, unveiled last month as a plan to get the state back in the black.

Now Republicans are goading Democrats to scrap their plans for tax and spending hikes. "If you're looking for evidence in this document to raise taxes, you're not going to find it," said House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, the Pioneer Press reported.

Dayton said he'd release a revised budget strategy in the next few weeks, and added he was open to anything. But he and DFL legislators were not leaping to scale back tax hike proposals.

As lawmakers this week plot new strategy, the Senate Ways and Means Committee on Monday is scheduled to get an overview of the revised budget picture from state finance officials.

In other action this week, the Associated Press reported that lawmakers are working on a bipartisan gun bill that gun advocates could support. The new bill reportedly aims to curb so-called "straw purchases" that allow guns to filter into the wrong hands, but the measure doesn't change state law to require background checks for all firearm purchases.

Also this week, the House Commerce Committee is expected to consider a number of alcohol-related bills, including a proposal to make beer more available at hockey and basketball games at the University of Minnesota.

And debate is expected to begin Monday in the Minnesota House on legislation that would create an online marketplace where an estimated 1.3 million people in the state would buy health insurance, the Star Tribune reports.

The health insurance exchange was a key feature of the federal Affordable Care Act, which allowed states to establish their own exchanges if they chose to do so. Senate lawmakers could begin considering the measure Thursday.

Last week

Here's a glimpse at other issues that were making their way through the Capitol last week:

Gay marriage

Advocates of same-sex marriage cheered when several lawmakers introduced legislation that would legalize gay marriage in the state. "My sense is that Minnesotans have come so far, so fast on this issue and the Legislature is ready to settle this question and move on," DFL Sen. Scott Dibble said. Conservative critics vow to oppose the measure.

Open meetings and social media

Fearful that spouting off on Facebook, Twitter and other Internet platforms might not technically be allowed under Minnesota's open meeting rules, local officials pressed state lawmakers to clarify the law. A bill has been introduced that would exempt social media chatter from the open meeting requirements.

Dayton tax plan

Hundreds of people showed up for the first public hearing last week of Dayton's tax overhaul proposals, including firefighters, doctors, pastors and business owners. Some of them spoke passionately for and against the governor's recommendations, MPR reported. Dayton's proposals include broadening the list of goods and services taxed in the state, as well as property tax relief, lowering the sales tax and higher taxes for the state's top earners.

Tourism boost

Rep. John Ward, DFL-Baxter, is urging his colleagues to invest more than $16 million in each of the next two years on tourism, which would double current spending. A state tourism official said Minnesota ranks 30th in state tourism spending.

Minimum wage

A House committee approved a bill that would raise Minnesota’s minimum wage by about 70 percent over the next three years. The measure approved by the panel would hike the rate paid by large employers in three steps, until it hits $10.55 in August 2015. Some business owners say the hike would force them to cut jobs.

Asian carp

A House panel last week approved a plan to build an electric barrier in the Mississippi River to stop the spread of Asian carp, and invasive species.

Sunday beer sales

Minnesota is one of 12 states that ban Sunday liquor store sales, and efforts to change that routinely fail. This year doesn't look much different, given the tone of a Senate hearing last week. Some store owners want the change, but others strongly oppose it.

Nursing home funding

House and Senate legislation unveiled last week would increase state nursing home reimbursements by $56 million over the next two years. Advocates of the proposal say some of the state's facilities are struggling even as the demand of an aging population increases.

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