2016 legislative session gets underway; budget surplus among top - KTTC Rochester, Austin, Mason City News, Weather and Sports

2016 legislative session gets underway; budget surplus among top priorities

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ST. PAUL, Minn. (KTTC) -

It's time for Minnesota's lawmakers to get back to work. The 2016 legislative session went underway Tuesday in St. Paul, and the next 10 weeks will be unlike any session we've seen before.

House representatives are meeting inside the Capitol, even though it's under renovation. Because of the construction, only 258 people are allowed inside at a time. Plus, there's no running water.

Members of the Senate are not meeting inside the Capitol. Instead, they are convening in an office building across the street.

"The first day is sort of like the opening day of baseball," said Sen. David Senjem (R-Rochester). "Everybody I think is hummed up and ready to go."

Also setting this session apart from others is its short schedule. This is the latest start ever, and lawmakers will have just over 10 weeks to get things done. 

At the top of lawmakers' list is how to spend, save or give back Minnesota's $900 million budget surplus.

Republicans want to use the surplus to fund a statewide transportation package. Democrats agree a transportation bill is a top priority, but say a gas tax would be the most efficient way to fund it.

State lawmakers will also be talking taxes.

"We got all this surplus money. Whether or not we give it back in terms of tax relief, personal income tax, business property tax, getting rid of social security tax, getting rid of taxes on veterans' pensions -- there are a  lot of options there," said Sen. Senjem.

"And some relief for the farmers. So, again, I think we'll listen to that debate and I think at the end of the day, we're going to pass a comprehensive bill with some really meaningful tax reform," added Sen. Dan Sparks (DFL - Austin).

Another top priority expected to be taken up by the House and Senate is the issue of enhanced driver's licenses. The federal Real ID Act will be enforced less than two years from now, meaning all Americans will need an enhanced driver's license to get through airport security.

Right now, Minnesota's licenses do not comply. Lawmakers are expected to work on making sure they do.

Though a new state budget will not be needed this time around, lawmakers will take a look at a bonding bill.

Gov. Mark Dayton introduced his bonding proposal earlier this year. If passed, it would provide $5 million for customs and border patrol at Rochester International Airport, $17 million to the Education Village project at Winona State University, and $13.5 million for building upgrades at Rochester Community and Technical College. In Altura, Dayton's proposal would give Crystal Springs Fish Hatchery $250,000 after many fish died of disease in December.

"To travel around the entire state and see these different projects, it's very competitive. But again, I think we can come together and pass a nice bonding bill," said Sen. Sparks. "Interest rates are low right now and to get a lot of these projects done that have statewide significance, I think that would be good for the entire state of Minnesota."

Some other issues expected to be taken up in the next 10 weeks include unemployment benefits for laid off Iron Range workers, and replacing Minnesota's presidential caucus with a primary.

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