By Don Davis
Minnesota legislators have taken baby steps in passing a $38 billion, two-year budget that must be finished by midnight Monday.
The biggest step so far was set to come late Friday or early Saturday as the House edged toward approving money for state-subsidized health programs, the second-largest part of the state budget.
“I think we have time to get the budget bills done,” House Majority Leader Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul, said even as Republicans complained that the Legislature was debating nonbudget bills.
“I’m concerned that with the amount of time left in the legislative session, we may not have enough time for public input and debate on these important bills,” said Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria.
Budget bills headed for Gov. Mark Dayton’s approval fund public safety, judiciary, higher education and economic development programs.
Much of the budget still was being negotiated among the Democratic-controlled House and Senate and Democratic governor’s office, including measures to fund natural resources, agriculture, public schools, various state agencies and transportation.
Some of the budget became clearer Friday. Murphy said she doubted gasoline taxes would rise, as some proposed. She also said legislative pay likely will not be increased.
A bill raising $2 billion in taxes remained in negotiators’ hands late Friday, but Dayton and legislative leaders gave them instructions to raise income taxes on the highest-paid Minnesotans, add a sales tax to some business services and raise cigarette taxes.
The House began a debate late Friday to fund state health programs for the elderly and disabled.
Supporters of nursing homes and other long-term care organizations said the health and human services bill averts a crisis.
The bill increases nursing home funding 5 percent in the first year of the next budget cycle and 1.5 percent in the second year.
Still, long-term care supporters say the work is not over to find sustainable funding for years to come.
“Every year that we put off discussions and decisions on sustainable long-term care funding will only make the problem more difficult to solve,” President Gayle Kvenvold of Aging Services of Minnesota said. “The state’s current funding approach is already strained.”
Earlier Friday, the House defeated a plan to spend $800 million on public works projects across the state. The vote was 76-56, but bills funded by the state selling bonds need 81 votes.
House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said the bonding bill and a proposed constitutional amendment that filled Friday afternoon are “distractions” from setting the state’s budget. The constitutional amendment would remove the decision about legislators’ pay from the Legislature.
The House plans to take a break from the budget for a time Saturday, perhaps a long time.
Nearly 100 amendments have been filed for a bill to allow child care providers and personal care attendants to join unions. There were fewer amendments than that when senators debated the bill, a debate that stretched 17 hours before it passed 35-32.
Murphy said she will use “all of the tools in the toolbox” to shorten debate if Republicans venture into filibuster territory instead of what she considers legitimate debate.
Rep. Jason Metsa, DFL-Virginia, sponsored the legislative pay amendment.
“This isn’t a bill about giving legislators a pay raise,” he said. “It is about being transparent.”
Daudt said there was no need to take up the bill this year because Metsa’s plan calls for voters to consider the measure in 2016, leaving three more legislative sessions where it could be debated.
Daudt and other Republicans raised their voices during the pay debate.
“Uff-da. I think the caps lock was on there,” Murphy said.