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Ceremony dominates policy as Minnesota Legislature opens

Minnesota state senators take the oath of office Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2017. They meet until May, with their main job passing a two-year budget. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)1 / 8
Long-time suthwest Minnesota polticial Cal Ludeman talks to a visitor Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2017, before he was named Minnesota Senate secetary for the second time. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)2 / 8
Newly elected Minnesota state Sen. Mark Johnson of East Grand Forks talks to Rep. Debra Kiel of Crookston Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2017, before the new legislative session begins. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)3 / 8
New Minnesota Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka of Nissa and his wife, Maralee, are all smiles Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2017, as the Legislature prepared to convene for the year. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)4 / 8
Minnesota House Speaker Kurt Daudt fields reporters' questions Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2017, after the state Legislature began its annual run. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)5 / 8
Minnesota state Sen. Melissa Franzen Edina holds up her right hand to be sworn into office Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2017, while using he left hand to hold Arthur Roger Franzen. The boy was born Dec. 28.(Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)6 / 8
Minnesota state Sens. Carrie Ruud of Breezy Point and Bill Ingebrigtsen of Alexandria talk Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2017, before the Senate starts is annual session. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)7 / 8
Minnesota Justice G. Barry Anderson talks to Sen. Scott Newman of Hutchinson before the Senate convened for the year on Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2017. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)8 / 8

ST. PAUL — Arthur Roger Franzen was not overly impressed with his ornate, and newly renovated, surroundings.

Sen. Melisa Franzen of Edina held her son, born Dec. 28, in her left hand while she rose her right hand Tuesday, Jan. 3, to be sworn in to her second Minnesota Senate term. Arthur Roger slept through the ceremony as the senator was one of 200 state lawmakers to take the same oath (the 201st one will be picked in a special election next month).

The 2017 legislative session kicked off with more pageantry and routine business than serious policy work.

Tuesday's major policy discussion was about how to help Minnesotans afford privately purchase health insurance.

Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton said he will include in his budget proposal a plan in which some families could save nearly $600 a month in insurance premiums via an instant rebate.

"I am calling on the Legislature this week to pass the bill I proposed," Dayton said of the measure he first suggested in October, when it became known that some individual insurance policy premiums would rise 67 percent.

About 5 percent of Minnesotans buy insurance from the individual market, but most get coverage via employers and government insurance.

Besides the soaring premiums, many policies now force Minnesotans to pay high deductibles and do not cover their regular doctors. There are reports that some patients will be forced to drive 60 miles or more to get to a doctor in an insurance policy's network.

Dayton wants to rush the premium relief through the Legislature, but many Republicans say other health insurance changes are needed right away, too.

"I want to make sure some of the key reforms get done," Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, said.

Daudt said he expects the House to pass a short-term bill next week that would provide relief to Minnesotans affected by soaring premium prices.

"That's our hope, if that can contain some long-term reforms, great," Daudt. "If not, we will be passing another long-term reform bill, which will hopefully reshape that individual marketplace and provide the stability it's going to need going into Jan. 1 of 2018."

The governor, Gazelka and Daudt met in private Tuesday to discuss health insurance, but there was no word on whether anything we decided.

Routine House and Senate organizational work dominated the Tuesday, with Wednesday set aside for no official work as legislators planned to attend a traditional seminar.

Tuesday started with the state Supreme Court holding a hearing its historic Capitol chambers. Throughout the day, Capitol visitors talked about the bright interior after three years' renovation for $310 million.

Dayton took advantage of new space for his office to move into the historic governor's office after spending the first six years of his tenure in a smaller space so he could give some top aides what would have been his office.

"I lost my little cubby over there," Dayton said, pointing toward a new stairwell.

The main job of the session, which can last until May 22, will be to draw up a two-year state budget to replace the $42 billion one that expires June 30. Without a budget in place, at least some of state government would shut down.

Also planned are coming up with ways to fund transportation, whether state construction projects should be approved this year and debating a tax bill providing several tax cuts as well as increasing state aid sent to local governments.

The governor delivers his budget plan on Jan. 24, a day after he gives his annual State of the State speech.