The Night The Funding Died

Legislative leaders cannot even agree on what they agreed to, so it is no surprise they can’t agree on what happened.

The argument continues, and likely will for a long time, about what happened in the final minutes of Sunday, May 22, as Minnesota lawmakers faced a midnight deadline to pass bills this year. Whatever happened, the failure to pass the last major bill of the legislative session left Minnesotans across the state short of $1 billion in transportation and other public works projects.

Gov. Mark Dayton is considering calling a special legislative session to complete the work lawmakers failed to accomplish. But that messy finish does not bode well for a special session, the governor said.

“They couldn’t agree among themselves … what should be in or out of the bonding bill,” Dayton said. “We are starting at an impasse.”

While the Democratic governor expressed some hope about public works projects, to be financed by the state selling bonds, Dayton was more doubtful transportation funding legislation could pass.

Transportation funding had been a priority for Democrats and Republicans alike since the beginning of the 2015 session. They never came close to an agreement until the final moments of the 2016 session, when Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, and House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, agreed on a deal crashing together transportation funding with a wide range of public works projects planned for across the state.

Facing a midnight deadline, the House passed the legislation 91-39 at 11:46 p.m.

When senators began debating the bill four minutes later, Sen. Ron Latz, D-St. Louis Park, was successful in amending the bill to allow Hennepin County to pay the local construction cost for a controversial Southwest Light Rail Transit project that Republicans strongly oppose.

Senators passed the amended bill 53-12 at 11:55 p.m., but representatives voted a minute later to adjourn for the year. That left the bill dead, with Daudt and Bakk calling for Dayton to call a special legislative session. Dayton says he will decide on a special session after the Memorial Day weekend.

However, the Democratic governor must factor in the fact that Daudt and Bakk do not agree on what they agreed to Sunday night. Daudt insists Bakk approved of the bill as the House passed it, but Bakk says the Hennepin County amendment was supposed to be part of the bill.

The two leaders, who say they are friends, all but call each other liars over the deal — or lack of a deal.

Bakk said he noticed the Hennepin County provision was not in the bill and sent Daudt a text about it at 11:44 p.m. Daudt said he did not receive the message until after adjournment.

“There was plenty of time,” Bakk said. “Why they decided to go home … is a mystery to me. But they killed the bonding bill.”

A Democratic charge that Republicans dropped the Hennepin provision “is patently false, and they know it,” Daudt told Forum News Service. It never was supposed to be in the measure, he said.

Negotiations over the matter were so precise, the speaker said, that Bakk asked him to help get Republican Senate votes to pass the measure because he knew some Democrats would vote against the bill since it lacked transit funding. Daudt said he and Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, discussed the issue and Hann delivered the votes.

Democrats claim the House had the bill in its possession in time to pass it, had representatives not adjourned four minutes before midnight.

“We did not have the bill,” Daudt countered.

The speaker said that he checked with his staff and was told the only work remaining was to appoint a conference committee on an outdoors bill but, since there was no time for a committee meeting before midnight, he asked House Majority Leader Joyce Peppin, R-Rogers, to move to adjourn for the year. She made the motion, which passed on a voice vote at 11:56 p.m.

The session ending was messy and chaotic, even Daudt admitted. But the reason for the emotion was deeply held beliefs among members of both parties about southwest light rail.

That political divide is one reason Dayton is pessimistic that a transportation deal can be reached for a special session. It was, after all, the main reason Democrats and Republicans never came together on the issue in the past two years.

A day before the regular session ended, House Transportation Chairman Tim Kelly, R-Red Wing, called transportation negotiators together to consider his idea to raise some funds and to deal with light rail. After a brief meeting, which insiders say followed an argument between Kelly and House GOP leaders, negotiators never met again in public; Bakk and Daudt took over and hammered out the failed deal behind closed doo