ST. PAUL, Minn. — The Minnesota House quickly passed a bill Tuesday to send emergency heating aid to people suffering through the brutal winter, setting a rapid pace on the first day of what could be a quick legislative session.
The House, which convened at noon, immediately took up a bill to pump an additional $20 million into a state fund that helps low-income residents pay heating bills. The bill passed unanimously, with Democrats and Republicans alike calling it a necessary step as subzero temperatures linger and propane prices stay high.
"It's important the state do everything it can to make sure every Minnesotan can keep their homes warm, keep their families warm," said Rep. Joe Radinovich, DFL-Crosby, who sponsored the House bill.
The state's energy assistance program got a $115 million federal infusion in recent months, but Commerce Commissioner Mike Rothman told a House committee Tuesday morning that the money is due to run out by early March. Meanwhile, he said, while the propane supply has stabilized compared with earlier this month, prices remain above $3 a gallon.
"This is very important to our rural districts. I have heard from a lot of people who are very concerned," said Rep. Deb Kiel, R-Crookston. About 250,000 Minnesota homes are heated by propane, though they will have to compete with users of other forms of energy who also are eligible for state heating assistance.
Earlier this month, Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton expanded the state's income eligibility for heating assistance, for any fuel, from 50 percent to 60 percent of the state's median income. Rothman said that added financial pressure on the fund.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk said the earliest the Senate would vote on the bill is Monday. He also said he thinks $17 million, rather than $20 million, might be all that's necessary.
Still, if the Senate dispatches quickly with the issue, it would give lawmakers an early accomplishment in a session that many hope is short and sweet as the election season looms. Lawmakers can't raise re-election funds from lobbyists and political action committees during session.
"Get going, get 'er done and get out," said Sen. Lyle Koenen, DFL-Clara City. "I know the nature of the place — the longer you're here, the more trouble you make."
With Dayton and the House's Democratic majority both on the ballot, many Democrats are keen to avoid issues that could split the party. An early test of the party's unity will be the proposal to raise the minimum wage, with House Democrats and Dayton backing $9.50 per hour, up from current $7.25 per hour.
Bakk has said some Senate Democrats are uncomfortable with a jump to a rate that high by next year, fearing it could hurt small businesses. Still, at a Capitol rotunda rally Tuesday afternoon where several hundred people chanted and cheered for a minimum wage hike, Bakk seemed more open to the $9.50 hourly rate.
"I believe we can get to $9.50, but I'm not sure it will be by 2015," Bakk said. Still, he said he believed lawmakers could have a bill to Dayton by the middle of March.
Other top priorities are likely to be a bonding bill that funds state construction projects; and a debate over whether a surplus expected to exceed $1 billion should be spent, saved or returned to taxpayers.
There is brewing tension over the extent and speed of tax changes that Republicans, House Democrats and Dayton all want. Senate Democrats haven't gotten on board yet.
The supportive political coalition hopes to write federal tax credits into Minnesota's code — cast as a middle-class tax cut —and to repeal new taxes on warehousing companies, telecommunications firms and equipment repair services. Their goal is to do it quickly, in part to give people clear guidance when filing their 2013 tax returns by the April 15 deadline.
"If you wait until later, they are going to have to pay people like me to fix it," said certified public accountant Todd Koch told the House Tax Committee, which heard about two dozen tax-cut bills Tuesday afternoon.
Even though Republicans are aligned in the tax cut push, they sensed a political motive. The business taxes targeted for repeal were adopted just last spring.
"In the non-election year Democrats were acting like Democrats — raising every tax they could think of," said House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown. "In an election year, we'll see if they act more like Republicans."
Back in St. Paul, Rep. Clark Johnson, DFL-St. Peter, is already thinking about the general election. He's one of the House's newest members, having won a 2013 special election. But Johnson said lawmakers need to keep more than just speed in mind.
"Let the process work itself through," Johnson said. "I assume we'll finish at a reasonable pace. Let's take the time to get the job done and do it right."