Daily Digest: 2018 session set to begin

Good morning, and welcome to the day after President’s Day which is commonly known as Tuesday and happens to be the first day of the 2018 Minnesota legislative session. Let’s get right to the Digest.

1) All eyes on the Senate president. In her day job, Republican Sen. Michelle Fischbach presides over debate and represents a crucial vote in the Minnesota Senate. In her other day job, she’s the state’s new lieutenant governor and would ascend to the top job if anything happened to DFL Gov. Mark Dayton.

The combination has created tension as the Legislature returns Tuesday for its 2018 session. Republicans, clinging to a one-seat majority, are on guard for Democratic attempts to force Fischbach out and throw the Senate into an unprecedented tie.  Fischbach has already survived one legal challenge on the grounds a constituent’s lawsuit was both premature and lacked a qualified plaintiff. Democratic Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, hinted more legal wrangling is ahead.

“When she casts that first vote,” Bakk said last week, “I think that raises the question of: Is that vote constitutional?” Minnesota’s Constitution says it’s up to each legislative chamber to judge the eligibility of its own members. (MPR News)

2) Republicans back away from a “penny-a-pill” to prevent opioid overdoses. During an appearance Monday on MPR News, House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said he expects to pass a major bill this session to fight opioid abuse. Last week, DFL Gov. Mark Dayton and a bipartisan group of lawmakers proposed an opioid measure that would rely on a penny-a-pill fee from drug companies to fund prevention and treatment. Daudt said that might not be the way to go.

“I’m not sure if it will pass exactly in that form, but we’re going to take some big steps this year to curb the opioid addiction problem,” he said. Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, also wants to put more money toward fighting opioid abuse, but he too has reservations about the proposed fee.

Gazelka said drug companies already pay a lot in taxes. “I wasn’t aware until recently that the pharmaceuticals right now give about $250 million a year that just simply goes into Minnesota’s general fund,” he said. “So, at the very minimum, I would try to carve out some of that.” Democrats want to back an opioid bill this session. House Minority Leader Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said the effort should be bipartisan.

But she doesn’t see a problem with charging a fee. “These drug companies are making a tremendous amount of money off of the fact that people are addicted, and they’re selling a large quantity of opioid,” she said. “So I think it’s fair that they would be part of the solution on the funding side.” (MPR News)

3) A cop in every school?  The Minnesota Senate’s top Republican said Monday that the state should consider paying for a police presence in every public school. On MPR yesterday Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said that enhanced school security should be part of the debate after last week’s mass shooting in Florida that left 17 dead.

He raised the idea when asked whether Minnesota lawmakers would revisit bills to restrict firearms. “I’d be open to funding for making sure every public school has a police officer present, depending on the size of the school maybe they need more — or at least at a minimum somebody would conceal carry, which mean you would have people available to stop something like that,” said Gazelka, R-Nisswa.

It would be a tall order. There are more than 2,400 school buildings across the state, many in small towns. (MPR News)

4) Progress reported on elder abuse complaints. Under pressure from legislators and families of elder abuse victims, state health officials have made dramatic gains in reducing a huge backlog of unresolved complaints of maltreatment in Minnesota senior care facilities.

The Minnesota Department of Health has cut the tally of unresolved maltreatment allegations by nearly 80 percent, from 3,147 to 712, in the last six weeks. The remaining backlog includes reports of maltreatment in senior care homes that have never been reviewed by state officials, as well as investigations that are still ongoing, the agency disclosed in a report Monday.

The rapid gains reflect a broader effort by the Health Department to improve its handling of the more than 20,000 allegations of maltreatment it receives each year. The allegations range from neglect to financial exploitation to violent incidents of physical and sexual abuse. (Star Tribune)

5) Minnesota case headed to Supreme Court next week.  A “Make America Great Again” hat. A tea party T-shirt. A MoveOn.org button. Wear any one of those items to vote in Minnesota, and a poll worker will likely ask you to remove it or cover it up.

Like a number of states, Minnesota bars voters from wearing political items to the polls to reduce the potential for confrontations or voter intimidation. But that could change. The Supreme Court on Feb. 28 will consider a challenge to the state’s law, in a case that could affect other states, too.

Wen Fa, a lawyer with the Pacific Legal Foundation, the group behind the challenge to Minnesota’s law, says voters wearing political apparel shouldn’t have to hang up their hats, turn their T-shirts inside out or put their buttons in their bags just to cast a ballot.

Wearing political clothing is “a passive way to express core political values,” said Fa, who said the case is “about the free speech rights of all Americans.” Minnesota sees it differently. In court papers, it says the law is a “reasonable restriction” that preserves “order and decorum in the polling place” and prevents “voter confusion and intimidation.” (AP)

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