- Associated Press - Monday, January 30, 2017

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) - Fresh off clearing the legislative session’s first big hurdle by approving financial relief for Minnesota residents facing massive health insurance premium hikes, the state’s leaders say it bodes well for the rest of the year. But far harder tasks await them on the rest of 2017’s to-do list.

There’s still the broader debate over how to restructure Minnesota’s fragile health insurance market, with Gov. Mark Dayton and Republicans starting from very different positions. Another year of debate looms over how to fund billions of dollars in needed infrastructure repairs. And then there are fights over tax relief, Dayton’s push for more early education funding and the remainder of a $40 billion-plus dollar budget left to settle.

On paper, the power structure at the Capitol is a repeat from 2011, when Republicans controlled the Legislature as Dayton, a Democrat, entered office. Dayton and Republicans deadlocked trying to set a two-year budget that year, bringing state government to a 20-day shutdown.

Back with full control after the November elections, Republican legislative leaders say they’re on better footing with Dayton and hope that the premium relief legislation signed this week, along with a recently finished bill that squares Minnesota’s tax code with the federal government, provides some momentum.

“You get two bills done in January, you’re moving pretty fast,” Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said. “I expect that this is the kind of cooperation you will see as we move forward.”

It took months of bargaining and bickering - beginning in the fall and stretching three weeks into the start of the legislative session - to finally address the skyrocketing premiums that all sides agreed were urgent. Dayton signed the legislation Thursday.

That bill uses $312 million in state funds to discount monthly premiums for an estimated 125,000 residents on the individual market. It was a product of pure political compromise - GOP majorities accepted Dayton’s preferred route for spending the money in exchange for some broader law changes, like allowing for-profit insurers to start selling plans in Minnesota.

The resolution appeared to cool some simmering tensions between Dayton and Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt, who had frequently criticized Dayton in the last two years for not getting involved at the Legislature until after bills hit his desk. Daudt called it a good sign.

The Legislative session will enter a quiet stretch until after state officials give a final update in more than a month on the size of the state’s budget surplus, which is currently projected at $1.4 billion. But Dayton has already laid out plans that make it certain the clashes will resume.

He’s asked for $75 million to expand a new preschool program that Republicans aren’t sold on. Daudt and Gazelka each said they’ll push for more in tax relief than the $300 million in tax cuts the governor proposed, geared mostly toward tax credits for child care costs and low-income families.

Their own proposals won’t materialize for weeks, but both legislative leaders derided Dayton’s renewed call for a 10-cent gasoline tax increase to fund road and bridge repairs and called his health care proposal to create a state-run public health care option a bad idea.

But the governor’s own health may be a factor in how the session progresses. A day after Dayton collapsed at Monday’s State of the State address, doctors at Mayo Clinic said it wasn’t related to his recent prostate cancer diagnosis. And it’s unclear how that diagnosis may affect his schedule - Dayton was expected to meet with his doctors again next week to determine a course of treatment.

Daudt said they’re all pulling for a swift and successful treatment.

“Frankly, I’d like to have my sparring partner be healthy and vigorous because it’s a good challenge for me as well,” the speaker said.

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