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MN Capitol Notebook: A loud kickoff to the 2020 legislative session

Minnesota Republicans have put forth a plan to help patients with diabetes afford insulin.1 / 4
Gun control advocates from Moms Demand Action hold up signs outside the Minnesota Senate chamber on Tuesday, Feb. 11, as lawmakers filed back in for the first day of the 2020 legislative session. Dana Ferguson / Forum News Service2 / 4
Members of the Minnesota Senate on Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020, stood for the Pledge of Allegiance on the first day of the 2020 legislative session in St. Paul. Dana Ferguson / Forum News Service 3 / 4
Karen DeVos, owner of Little Learners Child Care Center in Ada, on Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020, spoke in support of a $500 million plan to boost funding for early learning scholarships and child care assistance reimbursement rates at the Minnesota Capitol complex. Dana Ferguson / Forum News Service4 / 4

ST. PAUL — The 2020 Minnesota legislative session kicked off with cacophony this week as groups aiming to raise their issues to the top of the legislative priority list staked out the House of Representatives and the Senate.

With a two-year budget out of the way, state lawmakers come into the session without constitutional responsibilities. And groups pushing for gun control, drivers licenses for undocumented immigrants, ratification of the Equal Right Amendment, legalization of recreational marijuana and a host of other issues hoped to make their way to the top of lawmakers' policy priority list right out of the gate.

Some took creative measures to get lawmakers' attention by holding up signs that spelled out "Welcome Back" as legislators returned to the House and Senate chambers. Others donned wedding gowns and chains around their wrists to generate support for an effort to outlaw marriage before age 18.

And while their efforts raised the volume at the Capitol, it wasn't clear they'd raised the level of concern they were striving for in the divided state Legislature. As demonstrators shouted outside the Senate chamber Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka implored legislators to moderate their expectations with the reality of the split government in mind.

"We're going to push back and forth, but as we do that, the things that are there for us to do, that we actually have the ability to do, that we feel like there's some agreement, let's not miss them," he said.

After one lawmaker tried in vain to close out the legislative session early to save taxpayers some money, the Legislature got to work picking up some of their top priorities for this session.

Dueling affordable insulin proposals hit the fast track in the House and the Senate, though lawmakers pushing them still couldn't reach a compromise about what a program should look like.

And with $1.3 billion in budget surplus funds hanging out for them to divvy up, lawmakers laid out their priorities for where the money should go.

Here's a look at what went down in the first days of the legislative session.

Insulin plans get fast-tracked, but no clear compromise

Two proposals aimed at improving access to insulin for diabetics who can't afford it were some of the first bills to be debated this week and legislative leaders committed to putting the plans on a fast track to House and Senate floor approvals.

But after months of behind-the-scenes conversations aimed at drawing Republican and Democrat-drafted plans closer to a compromise, there wasn't a noticeable shift toward agreement on either side of the Capitol.

Despite that, House Speaker Melissa Hortman and Gazelka said the distinct House and Senate plans would be moved forward quickly in the next couple weeks.

"It is our goal to try to work at similar speed to actually pass an insulin (bill)," Gazelka said. "I think you'll see that there's movement. I see light at the end of the tunnel."

Hortman, a Brooklyn Park Democrat, in the first hours of the legislative session urged Republicans to support a plan put forth by Democrats, which would require insulin manufacturers to pay a fee to fund emergency insulin supplies for uninsured diabetics and those who couldn't afford the hormone. The Republican plan, by contrast, would require manufacturers to donate insulin to be supplied to diabetics in need.

"It is time for Senate Republicans to take a step toward us and acknowledge that the pharmaceutical industry has a role to play," Hortman told reporters on Tuesday. "This is a problem they created. This is a problem they profit from. It's time for them to come to the moderate middle where we’re standing waiting for a deal."

As that plan advanced through various committees this week, representatives from Pharmaceutical Research & Manufacturers of America said the measure infringed on drug manufacturers' constitutional rights. And they floated the possibility of bringing a lawsuit against the state if it passed.

Gov. Tim Walz on Friday told reporters that the drug manufacturers had a right to bring a lawsuit against the state if they didn't agree with the measure, but suggested that wouldn't bode well for them in the court of public opinion.

“The first week of session pharmaceutical companies are threatening to sue because we are trying to get insulin to Minnesotans who don’t have it. That to me doesn’t bode well at all,” Walz said. “My words to them is, ‘Bring on that court case.’”

Plans for $1.3 billion surplus come to the forefront

Within the first hours of the new session, legislative leaders made their opening arguments for how the state could best use a projected $1.3 billion budget surplus.

Democrats, who control the House of Representatives, made the pitch for a $500 million boost to early childhood opportunity scholarships, the state's child care assistance program and increases in rates of reimbursement for early learning and child care providers in Minnesota. They said one-time funding could help ease the child care crisis in Minnesota and improve education outcomes for Minnesota toddlers.

Meanwhile, Republicans who hold the majority in the Senate said Minnesota seniors deserve a break and that should come through exempting social security income from state taxes. Providing the tax relief to Minnesota seniors could help convince them to stay in the state and in the workforce longer, GOP leaders said.

Decisions on how to spend the state's extra funds likely won't come until later in the legislative session. Walz said he'd have a better idea of what the state should do with the funds after state budget officials provide a clearer picture of the state's financial status later this month.

Forum News Service reporter Sarah Mearhoff contributed to this report.