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Minnesota Legislature acts on lots of issues

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Minnesota Legislature acts on lots of issues
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ST. PAUL -- The 2014 Minnesota Legislature ended late Friday with a long list of actions.

Bonding: Lawmakers approved more than $1 billion for public works projects on the last day of the session, some funded by bonding and some by a state budget surplus. The biggest single project is $126 million for state Capitol building renovation. State colleges would get $242 million for campuses around Minnesota.

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Broadband: High-speed Internet expansion efforts, mostly in rural areas, will get a $20 million boost.

Budget: Minnesota lawmakers and Gov. Mark Dayton last year approved a $39 billion, two-year budget. Legislators added more than $260 million this year.

Bullying: Legislative Democrats passed, with a few Republican votes, a bill that Gov. Mark Dayton signed in April to require school districts to adopt strong anti-bullying policies. If a district does not comply, it will have to follow a state policy.

Constitutional amendments: No new constitutional amendment proposals were approved, but one planned for a public vote in 2016 was altered. That proposal would establish a commission to decide lawmakers' pay, taking it out of legislative control.

Education: Public education will receive $54 million more, including funds to increase early-childhood learning for more than 1,000 youths.

Elections: Secretary of State Mark Ritchie established an online voter registration process last year, but many legislators and a judge said he did not have that authority. Lawmakers passed a bill to make online registration legal.

Electronic cigarettes: Provisions to limit the sale of e-cigarettes to youths passed, along with prohibitions from smoking them in government buildings, hospitals and elsewhere. However, attempts to treat them like tobacco cigarettes, which are banned in all public places, failed.

Gender equality: The Women's Economic Security Act passed, with several provisions meant to help women get better pay and to be treated fairly in the workplace. One part of the act requires many state contractors to give equal pay to women who do the same jobs as men. It also doubles unpaid parental leave time to 12 weeks and requires more workplace accommodations for pregnant women and new parents.

Guns: Guns may be taken away from domestic abusers and some suspects after court approval.

Home health: The House and Senate passed budget bills that include increasing home health care funding 5 percent.

Legislative offices: Committees provided final approval for a new Senate office building across the street north of the Capitol, so construction can begin this summer.

Medical marijuana: Allowing some Minnesotans to use marijuana to relieve extreme seizures and other medical problems was passed on the Legislature's final day. It will allow eight locations to distribute marijuana extracts, but no plant marijuana can be used and it cannot be smoked. A doctor must approve the marijuana use for a specific list of medical problems. Distribution begins July 1, 2015.

Minimum wage: Legislators approved raising the minimum wage in phases to $9.50 an hour in three years for large businesses and $7.75 for small ones, then allow it to rise automatically to stay abreast with inflation. The first step of the higher wage begins in August.

Oil: A study was approved to see how North Dakota's oil boom affects Minnesota.

Payday loans: Religious and other groups wanted to clamp down on payday lenders that they say charge high interest rates and take advantage of poor Minnesotans. Senators passed it, but the House did not take a vote.

Propane: Soon after arriving in St. Paul, lawmakers approved increased funding to aid homeowners with problems paying for propane to heat their homes after a shortage prompted high prices. Also, a new law is designed to prevent propane price gouging and to maintain its availability to Minnesotans.

Sex offenders: A federal judge says the Legislature must change the state's sex offender program. If not, he could take control of it. Legislators did little about the situation, although a public works project they approved will improve Minnesota Sex Offender Treatment Program facilities.

Smartphones: Beginning next year, smartphones will be required to have "kill switches," software or hardware that allows the owner to disable the phones if they are lost or stolen.

Sunday sales: Efforts to allow Sunday liquor sales made little progress.

Synthetic drugs: Synthetic drugs, items such as bath salts and products sold under names like K2, will be more difficult or impossible to buy at retail stores under a new law.

Taxes: Legislators approved two tax-cut bills, totaling $550 million. They cut income taxes and property taxes as well as overturning some sales taxes enacted a year ago.

Transportation funding: A move to raise gasoline taxes failed, but some money was found for pothole repair and highway work.

Transportation safety: A series of transportation accidents and spills of crude oil, mostly from western North Dakota, prompted spending more than $11 million to improve response to railroad and pipeline crude oil incidents. First responders will get funds for more training and equipment, and the number of state railroad inspectors will grow from one to four or five. Some crossings along oil train routes will be improved. An existing assessment on railroads will be increased, and a new assessment on pipelines will help pay for the safety projects.

Unsession: Gov. Mark Dayton wanted this year to be the "unsession," meaning that obsolete laws and rules would be repealed. Lawmakers obliged by sending him more than 1,000 provisions to overturn or simplify.

Water: Lawmakers approved spending nearly $70 million to bring water from South Dakota into southwestern Minnesota. While the project received widespread support, many in the Legislature warned that other water-related issues, including shortages in parts of the state, will need to be addressed soon.

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Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.
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