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Minn. House Kicks Off 2014 Session with Passage of $20 Mil Heating Assistance Bill

Updated: 02/25/2014 7:10 PM
Created: 02/25/2014 7:05 PM WDIO.com
By: Alan Hoglund
ahoglund@wdio.com

The Minnesota Legislature’s 2014 session is underway in St. Paul. It’s expected to include long hours of debate on controversial issues like legalizing medical marijuana and raising the minimum wage.

Lawmakers will have to work fast. While there’s no budget to pass, the session is about a month and a half shorter than last year. But they’re not wasting any time.

The House of Representatives convened just after 12 p.m., and before 1 o’clock they had passed a $20 million bill to help heat the homes of low-income families. This comes less about a month after propane prices in the Northland surged to more than $5 per gallon, and Governor Mark Dayton declared a state of emergency because of a shortage.

Bill author, Rep. Joe Radinovich, DFL-Crosby, said "as we all understand because the prices have spiked, more families are impacted in their budget by these propane costs."

Crookston Republican, Rep. Debra Kiel, said "I have heard from people who are very concerned. They made plans, but didn't expect those high costs of propane."

The heating assistance bill passed the House unanimously, and the Senate could pass it as soon as next week.

Lawmakers acted quickly on the bill, but Duluth DFL’er Erik Simonson told Eyewitness News that debate on a medical marijuana bill will slow them down.

“It has to be prescribed by a physician and dispensed through a pharmacy. When you bring those groups into the mix, you need to have a fairly lengthy conversation about getting that regulated,” Simonson said. “Can we get that done in such a short time frame? I’d really be surprised.”

The bill’s chief author is Rep. Carly Melin, DFL-Hibbing. Simonson said if it doesn’t pass this year, Melin's legislation will certainly be something to talk about in 2015.

Simonson wasn’t sure whether he’d support the bill in its current form. He said “we need to have a fair amount of conversation this session about the issue. I know there has been some movement in the past few days migrating away from smoking marijuana to more of a pill or liquid.”

Sen. Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point, has already made up her mind. “I hope it never happens on my watch. I will be one of those who works very hard to make sure the bill gets defeated.”

The lawmaker representing Aitkin and Crow Wing counties pointed to Colorado, saying legalizing medical marijuana there led to allowing recreational use of pot. “I am not going to be the one that votes to put a marijuana joint in our kids hands,” she said.

Governor Dayton has said he wouldn’t sign off on a medical marijuana bill unless law enforcement is on board.

Between debate on legalizing medicinal pot, many lawmakers will be focused on increasing the minimum wage – an issue that has very vocal supporters. The Raise the Wage Coalition packed the Capitol Tuesday afternoon, chanting, singing, and calling for lawmakers to pass legislation raising the state’s minimum wage to $9.50 an hour by 2015.

Rep. Simonson said an increase is likely, but couldn’t say how big it might be. “I’m very confident we can pass something to increase the minimum wage but it’s just a matter of that final version, what it will look like.”

Like medical marijuana legislation, Sen. Ruud said she won’t support a minimum wage increase either. She’s concerned the jump would shut down small businesses.

"We're looking at our businesses in Greater Minnesota that could not survive with $9.50,” Ruud said. “The ice cream store across the street probably will go out of business."

Governor Dayton is up for re-election this fall. Voters will also find House races on their ballots. The Senate isn’t on the ballot until 2016.

Democrats will stoke a message that the state’s outlook is strong, while Republicans are trying to make a case that one-party rule has pulled Minnesota too far left.

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