By Danielle Nordine and Don Davis
Every issue in front of the Minnesota Legislature is optional as it prepares to adjourn in a few days, a couple of weeks or on its mandatory May 21 last day.
As lawmakers return from a 10-day Easter-Passover recess on Monday, there is nothing they absolutely have to do in their remaining time this year, unlike a year ago.
“This is not like last year when we had to agree on hard numbers…” Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton said about his 2011 dealings with the Republican-controlled Legislature. “There is nothing we have to have in bills.”
There is a sense the legislative end is near.
“Things are starting to funnel,” House Speaker Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, said, indicating that many bills still with a chance are headed to House-Senate negotiations.
Zellers said he considers April 30 the deadline for work this year, although the state Constitution gives lawmakers until May 21.
“We don’t need to dillydally around,” he said.
Dayton’s three major issues — approving a new Vikings stadium, funding public works projects and renovating the state Capitol building — bring with them divisions and face an uncertain future. But issues out of the spotlight have a better chance, issues such as increasing hunting and fishing license fees, funding the fight against Asian carp and other invasive species and changing how the state makes rules so businesses have more certainty when dealing with state government.
In an interview, Zellers admitted that Dayton’s opposition means some Republican projects will not survive. One probably is the GOP’s priority of cutting, and eventually eliminating, the statewide business property tax. Zellers said it would be “a huge lift” given Dayton’s opposition, but a smaller business tax cut could remain possible.
Of 42 bills lawmakers have passed, the major one is a proposed constitutional amendment to require voters to show photographic identifications before casting ballots. It did not need Dayton’s approval, but goes directly to voters on Nov. 6.
“I’d say that was the marquee accomplishment this year,” Sen. Dave Thompson, R-Lakeville, said, sounding like the legislative session already is over.
Other lawmakers are optimistic more will come out of the session.
Rep. Morrie Lanning, R-Moorhead, said Republicans and the governor are working together on remaining issues such as the stadium and tax bills.
“You want to have bills the governor will sign,” Lanning said. “You can pass a bill to make a political statement, but if in the end it’s not signed it’s a lot of effort for no outcome.”
Many lawmakers join Zellers in predicting an end of April adjournment, but others say the focus should be on finishing the remaining work instead of a deadline.
“Everybody’s anxious to be done, but you don’t want to go home without doing the work,” Lanning said.
Rep. Bruce Vogel, R-Willmar, said when lawmakers return from their 10-day Easter-Passover break Monday, it will likely take at least two weeks to complete the remaining work.
“If I had to make a guess, we’re going to bump up to May 21,” Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said, although he is pushing for earlier adjournment.
A resolution to the stadium issue and a public works bill, funded by the state selling bonds, top most legislators’ still-to-do lists.
“The No. 1 priority of a short session year is a bonding bill,” Democrat Sen. Roger Reinert of Duluth said. “That’s the only reason we’re supposed to be here.”
Many Republicans agree. The problem comes in trying to blend three very different proposals from the Legislature and Dayton.
“We’ve got House and Senate bills that are nothing like each other,” Reinert said. “I’m fairly convinced there won’t be (a resolution), unfortunately.”
“Getting the bonding bills to mesh will take a lot of work,” Vogel said.
The House plan would spend $280 million, the Senate $500 million and Dayton $775 million.
“The governor’s is too big,” retiring Rep. Mark Murdock, R-Ottertail, said. “Minnesota can’t afford that.”
Republicans said since a bonding bill passed last year, a smaller version this time around should be adequate.
Zellers said a bonding bill featuring repairs on existing state facilities can pass, but maybe not one bigger than the House plan that funds civic centers and other new facilities.
Many lawmakers said that at least some money for improvements to the Capitol building should be approved.
“It’s important to preserve the wonderful building we have here,” Murdock said.
A plan for a new Vikings stadium is the “elephant in the room” during the rest of the session, Reinert said.
“It’s gone on long enough,” said Lanning, the stadium bill’s chief House author. “We need to get this resolved. It deserves an up or down vote.”
Zellers has been a key to the stadium issue and in the interview said feedback he receives from representatives is that it has a decent chance to pass the House, given the fact that it passed two committees in a week before the recess.
Many stadium-related questions have been answered, he added, especially dealing with funding issues.
Still, Zellers said, for him a stadium falls far below issues such as taxes and flood control and he will not force a vote by the full House.
Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, said Republicans hope to accomplish more of their Reform 2.0 agenda bills before leaving for the year.
“Those were ideas we got when we traveled around the state and heard from constituents,” he said.
Many of proposals are awaiting House and Senate versions to be melded. Most Reform 2.0 proposals deal with improving the state’s business climate.
Dayton has rejected some of the Reform 2.0 measures, but is considering others.
“We’ve put forth a lot of good bills,” Rep. Dave Hancock, R-Bemidji, said. “Unfortunately the governor and ourselves didn’t agree on the value of those bills.”
Murdock agreed that reforms are key this year.
“The main thing is to continue the reforms we started,” he said.
Republican Rep. Tim Kelly of Red Wing, vice chairman of the House education committee, added education issues to the list. Many Republicans said they were disappointed the governor had vetoed their plan to begin repaying school districts after the state delayed their payments the past several years.
Some lawmakers are surprised the Legislature has not finished.
“Because once we come back, what’s the end game?” Reinert asked. “We don’t have any reason to think that after 10 days off we’ll be able to put all these things to rest.”
Reinert also said he hopes to see legislation strengthening penalties for synthetic drug sales and adding more such drugs to the list of illegal substances passed and signed by the governor.
As far as the rest of the session goes, “mostly I will try to see some things blocked,” such as racinos and other expanding gaming, Thompson said.
One of the issues that apparently will not pass this year is a mostly Democratic attempt to replace the $370 million last year’s budget agreement cut from property tax credits. Democrats say that cut forced local governments to raise their local taxes by that much.
“Now our state has the highest property tax level in our 154-year history,” Rep. Kent Eken, DFL-Twin Valley, said. “Over the last 10 years property taxes for homeowners increased by 92 percent and property taxes for farmers have increased 150 percent.”
Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, pointed out one of the new laws that has achieved a bipartisan agreement, one that will provide flexibility to the Veterans Affairs Department in paying for military veterans’ honor guards.
The new law will help veterans’ groups get paid quicker.