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Session starts today: State legislators face roadblocks — literal and figurative — back in St. Paul

ST. PAUL -- Minnesota legislators begin their latest-ever regular session at noon today, facing literal roadblocks that disrupt foot and car traffic near the Capitol building and figurative ones that deeply divide Republicans and Democrats.

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Minnesota Sen. Melisa Franzen of Edina holds son Phillip during a Monday news conference the day before the Legislature returns to St. Paul. Don Davis/Forum News Service

ST. PAUL - Minnesota legislators begin their latest-ever regular session at noon today, facing literal roadblocks that disrupt foot and car traffic near the Capitol building and figurative ones that deeply divide Republicans and Democrats.

As the session begins, there are few signals about how the political roadblocks can be breached.
But, first, the state’s 201 legislators must deal with the more practical issues, such as how to navigate a new building and an all-but-closed state Capitol.
A $304 million renovation project has closed the Capitol since May, but workers restored the House chamber so it can be used from today through the mandatory adjournment date of May 23. Other than tunnels that run under the building, only one elevator and hallways leaving to the House chambers will be open, and the number of people allowed in will be dramatically limited.
There is a pathway for representatives to get to freshly installed outdoor toilets, brought in because the Capitol has no running water during construction.
Senators will not be in the Capitol, but will hold sessions in the new Minnesota Senate Building, in a converted committee room.
All House members and Republican senators who want to stay out of the elements must take tunnels lined with plywood to and from their floor sessions.
Once the plywood tunnels are managed, legislators reaching the chambers will find issues such as how to fund transportation projects as new roadblocks. They must decide how much money to spend on public works projects. They must decide if they will agree with Gov. Mark Dayton and increase spending for early-childhood programs and higher education.
A spokeswoman for House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, did not immediately respond to a question about what, if anything will be debated today.
Daudt had indicated that the House will take up bill quickly to extend unemployment benefits to Iron Range workers laid off as taconite mines close temporarily and permanently.
A Department of Employment and Economic Development spokeswoman on Monday said there are about 3,800 unemployed Iron Range workers, nearly 2,000 of them directly connected to the mines. About 2,300 Iron Rangers have exhausted their regular unemployment benefits and await legislative action for 26 more weeks of payments.
A House committee last week backed a bill that would extend the benefits, but also cut $272 million from the fund that supports unemployment benefits.

House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, D-Minneapolis, wrote a letter to Daudt Monday saying that should not be in this week’s bill.
Instead, Thissen supported the speaker’s “oft-repeated maxim that the Legislature ought to move forward on items we can agree upon while leaving more controversial and divisive issues for future discussion and debate.”
Daudt also has promised quick action to remove a gag order on state officials who want to make state identification cards, such as driver’s licenses, comply with federal standards. The speaker said the Legislature later this spring should overhaul state law to meet federal law.
While legislators were getting ready for today’s session opening, some Democrats were launching a new proposal.
Reps. Jason Metz of Virginia and Peggy Flanagan of St. Louis Park and Sen. Katie Sieben of Cottage Grove announced they would promote legislation to require businesses to offer paid parental and medical leave. It could be used for new parents to bond with children and employees who need to care for ill family members.
Workers and businesses each would be taxed to pay for what backers call an insurance plan the state would administer. Benefits would be capped at $1,000 a week for up to 12 weeks.
A person earning $44,000 a year would pay $1.70 a week into the insurance fund, matched by the same amount from the employer.
Sieben, a mother of three, said parents need a time to bond with their new children. “This should not be up for debate.”
With the “modest cost,” Sieben said that she expects the plan to gain widespread support.
Metsa said just 13 percent of Minnesota workers have paid leave like he and his colleagues propose. He also said that 85 percent of Minnesotans support such a plan.
About 135,000 Minnesotans a year would collect $461 million from the plan, supporters said.

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