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Surprises may await lawmakers

ST. PAUL -- Minnesota legislators return to the Capitol today, not knowing just what the next few months will bring. Sure, they know some topics they will discuss in the 2004 legislative session that begins at noon, such as forcing sex offenders ...

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ST. PAUL -- Minnesota legislators return to the Capitol today, not knowing just what the next few months will bring.

Sure, they know some topics they will discuss in the 2004 legislative session that begins at noon, such as forcing sex offenders to serve longer prison terms. And they understand the main purpose for the session is to decide how much to spend on public works projects such as fixing up college buildings. Whether to build a stadium -- or stadiums -- is bound to be on their plates, even if not a top priority. Many lawmakers want to revisit cuts they made last year to balance the state budget.

Lawmakers hit the ground running this week with a full compliment of committee meetings, including some dealing with those predictable big topics.

This afternoon, for instance, a Senate committee begins discussing drug offender sentencing. Senate committees on Wednesday and Friday look into sex offender laws.

On Tuesday afternoon, a House committee starts debating Gov. Tim Pawlenty's proposal to fund public building projects.

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Legislators hear Pawlenty's State of the State speech at noon Thursday.

One of the potential dark-horse issues makes its debut Tuesday -- initiative and referendum.

House Majority Leader Erik Paulsen, R-Eden Prairie, discusses his proposed constitutional amendment in a Tuesday committee hearing.

Paulsen's amendment would give Minnesota voters the right to initiate new laws or overturn ones legislators already approved.

Another potential hot-

button topic is Rep. Phil Krinkie's idea to limit how much the state budget can grow to the rate of inflation plus the rate of population growth. Krinkie, R-Shoreview, said his "taxpayers' bill of rights" constitutional amendment would slow budget increases, like the 45 percent jump seen in the past five years.

Yet another constitutional amendment could find the spotlight. That one would take a state law that defines marriage as a union of a man and a woman and put it in the state constitution.

It is not just constitutional amendments that may become the hot issues. House Speaker Steve Sviggum, R-Kenyon, said who decides feedlot placement may become the surprise issue.

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Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson, DFL-Willmar, said current law that gives counties the right to permit feedlots has "for the most part been quite effective." However, he expects new Agriculture Committee Chairman Sen. Jim Vickerman, DFL-Tracy, to take up a proposal to turn the job over to townships.

Legislators have debated whether to allow more casinos for years. But a Minnesota native's letter late last week may open the issue wider this year.

Owatonna native Don Laughlin offered to open a casino and give the state

90 percent of the net profit, which he estimated to be

$100 million a year "and probably more." Laughlin owns Riverside Resort Hotel and Casino in the town that bears his name near Las Vegas, Nev.

Allowing grocery stores to sell wine is an issue likely to be noticed.

"There is a real possibility it could get through," Rep. Kent Eken, DFL-Twin Valley, said.

Many towns that depend on municipal liquor stores for revenue fear the bill.

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"Those municipal liquor stores do provide a good deal of funding for the city," Eken said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Don Davis at (651) 290-0707

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