Legislative update, week 6: Act II of marriage fight coming?

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It's been a busy few weeks at the Minnesota Legislature, with high-profile battles under way over the state budget and gun control.

Do lawmakers want to add another highly contentious issue to the mix – the debate over whether to legalize gay marriage in the state?

Many lawmakers, including DFLers who support gay marriage, have been reluctant to take the issue on this year as they grapple with they consider more pressing fiscal matters. But DFL Gov. Mark Dayton raised a few eyebrows when he chose to mention the issue in his State of the State address last week. "I believe that every Minnesotan should have the freedom to marry legally the person she or he loves, whether of the same or other sex," Dayton said, as most DFLers applauded and most Republicans sat silent.

Gay marriage advocates say the time is right to push for legalization, and they'll rally on Valentine's Day this week at the Capitol, led by the group Minnesotans United for Marriage. New York-based Freedom to Marry plans to put money into this year's Minnesota legislative fight to legalize gay marriage, the Star Tribune reported.

Meanwhile, the state's leading group opposing gay marriage, Minnesota for Marriage, is planning a rally of its own at the Capitol on March 7.

Last week

Here's a snapshot of some of the action around the Capitol last week:

Gun week

President Barack Obama came to Minneapolis as he began a public push to prod congressional lawmakers into approving new gun control measures, including a ban on assault weapons. He spoke to local law enforcement and other officials at a north Minneapolis police center in an address televised live on cable news. He has recruited Hennepin County Sheriff Richard Stanek and Minneapolis Police Chief Janee Harteau to help lead his efforts.

That visit set up three days of high-spirited hearings in packed rooms in the state Legislature as House lawmakers considered a wide variety of state gun control measures. The sessions made clear that passions run high among both those who support and oppose new gun control laws. The Senate is planning its own hearings later this month.

State of the State

Gov. Mark Dayton gave his third State of the State address, and he spent most of the speech generally outlining his approach to solving a $1.1 billion state budget deficit. Dayton did not dig into the weedy details of his sweeping budget and tax proposals, but he sounded a few general themes to help frame debate in the Capitol: “Trying to cut our way to a better Minnesota is a failed experiment and we should not repeat it,” he said. Dayton aims to raise more money for the state by taxing more services and putting higher taxes on the state's top earners.

State worker raises

The House this week is expected to vote on an across-the-board 2 percent pay raise for more than 35,000 Minnesota state employees. The Senate approved the measure 40-25 last week. It would cost about an additional $249 million over the next two years, but would not be "new" spending in that state agencies would absorb the increase in their current budgets, the Pioneer Press reported.

Cigarette tax hike

The House taxes committee last week heard comments on a Dayton proposal that taxes be dramatically increased on cigarettes. One bill calls for a $1.60 increase, although Dayton has suggested a hike of 94 cents a pack. The current tax is $1.23 per pack. Anti-smoking activists say the tax could help curb smoking in the state.

Students rally

Hundreds of University of Minnesota students cheered for increased funding at the Capitol last week, and then they hustled off to lobby lawmakers. They advocate a proposed tuition freeze, which several key lawmakers support. Officials at the U have asked for $91.6 million more in state funding over two years, an 8.4 increase. Meanwhile, lawmakers are vowing to put the university's administrative spending under the microscope.

Fallen officer tribute

Lawmakers last week began considering a bill that would name portions of Highway 23 in central Minnesota for slain Cold Spring Officer Tom Decker. A Senate panel is scheduled to hold a hearing on it Monday.

Sunday alcohol

A number of attempts have been made in the Legislature to forever drown a long-standing Minnesota law that bans off-site liquor sales on Sundays. The movement has bubbled up again and two lawmakers who live near the border with Wisconsin – where stores sell liquor seven days a week – are leading this year's effort, Sen. Jeremy Miller, R-Winona and Sen. Roger Reinert, DFL-Duluth, the Star Tribune reports. Polls show support for Sunday sales, but lawmakers have been reluctant to approve it.

Rochester Lobby Day

As they do every year, Rochester residents and business leaders swarmed the Capitol on Rochester Lobby Day last week, but the event took on a new urgency this year. The Mayo Clinic has proposed a bold new multibillion-dollar plan to close a "satisfaction gap" that workers and visitors to Mayo find when they get to the city – they are wowed by the world-class health care facility, but underwhelmed with a city lacking in amenities. Mayo proposes spending $3.5 billion of its own money but is asking for $585 million from the state to make improvements to the city. Vigorous debate is expected as lawmakers mull whether to invest so much state money in a city project.

School lunches

A new bill aims to expand the state's free lunch program by 61,500 students, which advocates say would give low-income students the nutrition they need to help them learn in school, MPR reports. But it would cost $4 million a year, and critics wonder if it just relieves some parents of what is their responsibility.

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