Welcome to your Wednesday Digest. We’re ready to celebrate Special Session Eve. Are lawmakers?
1. A change is gonna come? They promised things would be different this time — and they seemed to believe it. But as early as this week, Gov. Tim Walz will have to call legislators back into a special session to finish work on a two-year state budget, the same outcome as three of the last four budget battles in St. Paul. “I cannot change the culture single handedly, and I cannot do it overnight,” DFL House Speaker Melissa Hortman said after session adjourned at midnight Monday night with much work left on the table. In her first term as speaker after winning control from Republicans last fall, she was one of the key voices pledging a new way of doing things. The pledges started as early as January, when Hortman and Republican Senate Majority Paul Gazelka said they would quickly pass bipartisan bills that were vetoed in a blowup finale last year that they said should have never failed in the first place. A fee on drug manufacturers to pay costs of the opioid epidemic, a hands-free cell phone driving requirement and election security funding were at the top of the list. By the last day of session, only one of those bills had been signed into law. (MPR News)
2. Higher ed sees funding increase. Funding for higher education was the only budget bill state lawmakers passed before the end of the session late Monday night. For the state’s higher ed systems that means an end to the uncertainty over funding, and about $150 million in new money over the coming two years. Of the $3.4 billion pie, about 80 percent of that is split between the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system, which takes around $1.45 billion, and the University of Minnesota system, which gets around $1.35 billion. Much of the rest goes to the state office of higher education. For the 2020-21 biennium, the $150 million increase was far less that what the systems and the state office requested. (MPR News)
3. Democrats push to revive study of mining near BWCA. U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum is firing another shot in her war with the Trump administration over a proposed copper-nickel mine on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northeastern Minnesota. Legislation she plans to present Wednesday would compel the U.S. Forest Service to finish a canceled study of the mine’s potential environmental impacts on the pristine wilderness watershed. The order is part of the Interior-Environment’s $37.28 billion funding measure McCollum is slated to present to the full House Appropriations Committee Wednesday. “Until the departments address the question of whether mining, especially copper-sulfide ore mining, is appropriate on National Forest lands in the Rainy River Watershed, no action to advance mining in this area should occur,” reads a report attached to the funding legislation. The appropriations bill report directs the secretary of agriculture and the U.S. Forest Service “to reinstate and complete” an environmental study of mining near the Rainy River Watershed, which was ordered by the Obama administration but canceled after President Donald Trump took office. (Star Tribune)
4. St. Paul schools to review skyrocketing construction costs. St. Paul Public Schools will hire outside experts to review what’s gone wrong with its Facilities Master Plan, whose cost estimates have grown by 61 percent in under three years. Superintendent Joe Gothard announced plans for an “external leadership and review team” at Tuesday night’s school board meeting. The move comes two days after a Pioneer Press report that found cost estimates for 18 high-priority school construction projects have grown by $179 million, to $471 million, since the plan first was approved in 2016. The newspaper, citing several former district employees, also raised questions about leadership and transparency within the district’s facilities departsment and lacking oversight from district administrators and the elected school board. “It is deeply concerning to have the trust of our school district questioned, and it is with every effort that I will work to build a new sense of trust to help us move forward,” Gothard said Tuesday. (Pioneer Press)
5. Minnesotans rally for abortion rights. Hundreds of people gathered on and near the Capitol steps Tuesday to support abortion rights, part of a nationwide response to laws passed in other states recently that ban nearly all abortions, or severely restrict them. “We are here because our very lives are at stake,” said Sarah Stoesz, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota. Stoesz said she fears what will happen if those rights are rescinded. She said she remembers how women risked having unsafe abortions before the United States Supreme Court ruled nearly 50 years ago in Roe v. Wade that a women’s right to an abortion was protected by the Constitution. (MPR News)