Legislative update, week 16: Budget bills taking shape

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Lawmakers at the Capitol are preparing for traditional end-of-session budget negotiations, and lawmakers are working their way through a number of bills that set funding frameworks for state agencies.

The Pioneer Press notes that among the measures is a House-approved bill that sets a budget for the state's courts and includes a pay raise for judges and increased fees associated with using the judicial system.

The House also approved legislation that funds public safety and corrections. Meanwhile, the Senate approved a massive measure that sets state spending for agriculture, natural resources, commerce, pollution control and economic development agencies, the Pioneer Press notes.

And in a Senate transportation measure, lawmakers have lowered the state's gas tax, although it includes a new wholesale excise tax, which could ultimately mean increased prices at the pump, the Star Tribune reports.

The House and Senate this week are expected to work up legislation involving a variety of investments in education, including all-day kindergarten, FOX 9 reports.

In other debate on higher education, lawmakers are grappling with several fundamental questions, among them: Should they put more money toward new programs – or use higher ed money to hold tuition steady? The Star Tribune examines some of the sophisticated equipment needed by one Dakota County Technical College program.

There's much more to come as the budget battles rage. Lawmakers aim to wrap up their work for the session in about a month.

Last week

Here's a glimpse at some of the action in the Legislature last week:

House DFL tax plan

A new House DFL tax plan was unveiled that would raise $2.6 billion by raising taxes on the wealthy, smokers, and in a new proposal, alcohol drinkers. The alcohol tax, last raised 20 years ago, would be hiked by 7 cents a beer, 47 cents per bottle of wine and $1.58 cents per hard-liquor bottle.

Tuition freeze

Painfully aware that Minnesota students have some of the highest student loan debt in the nation, lawmakers are mulling whether to spend new money for a plan to freeze tuition for two years at Minnesota universities, which would halt a steady tuition rise in recent years. A Senate budget bill adds $263 million, a House bill $150 million.

Lawmaker pay raises

Minnesota senators voted themselves and other state officials pay raises with no debate, on a 34-32 vote. The bill would increase lawmaker salaries from the current $31,000 – the standard for nearly 15 years – to $42,000 in 2016. A similar pay raise is not in a related House bill, but House-Senate negotiators could agree to it later as part of a final measure.

Jobs bill OK'd

The House approved a jobs bill 75-57 that funnels money to job training programs, and pays for tax cuts for employers and other economic development measures. The $139 million bill includes $20 million for the Minnesota Investment fund and $18.5 million for the Job Creation Fund, both state job creation efforts.

Fee increases

Minnesota Democrats in the Capitol and Gov. Mark Dayton are seeking a number of fee hikes that are written into budget bills working their way through the Legislature. MPR examined a number of them, including $3 more for a driver’s license, a $5 surcharge on homeowner’s and auto insurance policies, a new fee on prepaid cell phones and a $15 surcharge on traffic violations.

Gay marriage

Same-sex marriage advocates rallied in the cold at the Capitol last week, as heated lobbying efforts continue on legislation that would legalize gay marriage in Minnesota. Dayton spoke at the event, saying that an alternative proposal for civil unions did not go far enough. Gay marriage foes continue to press their case at events outside the Twin Cities, including a Monday event in Elbow Lake.

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