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Capitol Notebook: Gun bills tee up a legislative battle, goalposts set for state spending

Lawmakers returned to the Minnesota State Capitol Jan. 8, 2019, for the reconvening of the Legislature. Michael Brun / Forum News Service1 / 4
Gov. Tim Walz, left , and state Sen. John Jasinski, R-Faribault, right, speak with Steve Erickson, center at the Hanscom Motor Vehicle Office in Faribault on Thursday. Walz was in town to see the results of a software fix to the state's MNLARS system that has meant months-long delays for driver's licenses and vehicle titles. Jacob Swanson / Faribault Daily News2 / 4
Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz said on Thursday, Feb. 28, 2019, that he will need to look over his just-released budget to see how to adjust it to match a new lower-than-expected state revenue forecast. Don Davis / Forum News Service 3 / 4
Gun control supporters and opponents packed a hallway at the Minnesota Capitol ahead of a hearing Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2019, on a pair of firearm bills. Dana Ferguson / Forum News Service4 / 4

ST. PAUL -- Gov. Tim Walz and lawmakers got a reality check this week on the taxpayer dollars they'll have to fund spending priorities like education and public safety.

A pair of gun control measures raised tensions among supporters and opponents, as well as top legislative leaders, who dug in and prepared to make the issue one of the hallmarks of the legislative session.

Lawmakers again agreed to boost funding for the state's driver licensing and vehicle registration computer software to fix flaws that have caused headaches and long wait times.

New economic information set the goalposts for what Walz and lawmakers can do without raising taxes. And Democrats and Republicans in the divided Legislature split on the best path forward. They also suggested that gun control policies could become part of budget debates if the Minnesota Senate doesn't put them up for a vote.

The disagreements signaled trouble in the weeks and months ahead as legislators attempt to come to an agreement on a budget or risk shutting down state government.

Here's a look at what happened this week at the Capitol.

Spending plans get a reality check with economic forecast

The tax dollars lawmakers expected to be able to spend over the next two years saw a considerable cut this week as economists forecast an economic slowdown on the horizon.

Minnesota is still projected to take in a $1 billion surplus, but factoring for inflation on state spending, there won't be new money for lawmakers to allocate, the projection showed.

Democrats and Gov. Tim Walz said the forecast showed the state should be collecting additional taxes to let it spend more on schools, health care programs and road and bridge repair projects. And the Democratic-Farmer-Labor governor doubled down on his efforts to raise a gasoline tax to fund transportation infrastructure projects and to pass a $1.3 billion bill funding public works project.

Republicans, meanwhile, said the Legislature should pump the brakes on tax hikes or additional spending proposals with an economic slowdown on the horizon.

Lawmakers will use the economic snapshot in the coming months to craft their budget proposals. Walz and legislators will have to come to an agreement about a spending plan before May or risk a state government shutdown.

Gun bills hit the stage for the first time, set up end-of-session fight

Two gun control measures stoked passions at the Capitol this week as they came up in committee for the first time.

One proposal would set up universal background checks at the point of sale or transfer of a firearm, and the other so-called "red-flag" bill would allow family members, law enforcement officers and government attorneys to seek court orders taking away guns from persons determined to be an “extreme risk” if living in a home with guns.

Both elicited hours of emotional testimony in committee and passed through on party-line votes with Democrats supporting them and Republicans opposing them.

And while DFL House leaders said the bill would eventually make it to a floor vote and pass there, Senate GOP leaders said it didn't have a chance in that chamber. In response, House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said the gun control measures could be woven into House budget proposals.

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, said he would remove them.

MNLARS money gets late-night approval

The state's embattled driver's licensing and vehicle registration computer system again came up in conversation this week as lawmakers weighed spending more to fix the program's flaws and learned the agency that helped create it got mixed performance reviews.

House lawmakers on Thursday debated late into the night and ultimately approved $26 million in funding for the Minnesota Licensing and Registration System, known as MNLARS. The funds would help fix glitches in the computer system, bring on more workers to help customers and reimburse deputy registrars. The bill moves now to the Senate for consideration.

The Office of the State Legislative Auditor this week also gave the Office of Minnesota Information Technology Services (MNIT) mixed reviews for its performance about eight years after it was formed. A report released Wednesday said the agency's oversight on some projects was too lax and at times was out of compliance with state law and the agency's policies and procedures. Auditors also found that the majority of department and agency officials were satisfied with MNIT's enterprise services and technical services.

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