Deep Into Session, Legislators Look For Starting Line

The Minnesota Legislature passed all of its spending legislation in the last couple of weeks, the earliest in memory, but lawmakers just reached the starting line in writing a two-year budget.

As lawmakers start a Passover-Easter break this weekend, they leave behind a few bills they have passed and became law since they arrived Jan. 3 in St. Paul — ranging from their first step toward fixing a health insurance cost crisis to placing a moratorium on the state issuing permits to farmers who mow highway ditches.

Those and most other bills being considered are not the main reason lawmakers are in St. Paul. That would be the budget.

The governor, House and Senate are far apart on how they would spend about $46 billion over the next two years.

Legislators are away from the Capitol until April 18. When they come back, House-Senate conference committees will begin the work of merging budget bills the two bodies have passed. Legislative leaders say they want to include the Dayton administration in those talks so they can send the governor final bills he will not veto.

Relationships make for successful negotiations, and from the outside it looks like House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, and Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton are on different wavelengths. Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, and Dayon appear to be closer.

Dayton’s comments on Friday, April 7, about the two top legislative leaders show what he thinks about them:

  • “I had lunch with Sen. Gazelka and he and I have established a very good relationship. He very seriously wants to get these matters resolved in the least contentious way possible, get them done up front.”
  • “I met with Speaker Daudt last week. We had a very cordial lunch, and he hasn’t said anything good about me since.”

Gazelka plays down talk by the House and administration that makes the budget work look impossible.

“I don’t recall a budget that either side agreed with the other side’s first offer,” the first-year majority leader said. “I think we have a good first offer. …. We are going to work with House Republicans and the governor to find the sweet spot in the middle.”

Dayton said his signature on a number of pending bills will depend on whether they contain items he finds “unacceptable.”

Among those, he said, is legislation that leaves out additional funds to establish optional classes for 4-year-olds. Republicans approved bills that they say give schools more flexibility in helping pre-school children, but schools could use the funds for classes Dayton wants.

Overall budget cuts Republicans want at state agencies also are an issue, Dayton said.

“If this Legislature or the majority wants agencies to have their budgets reduced, then they need to be explicit about what they want these agencies not to do,” he said.

A Republican mantra is to reduce the size of government to save tax money.

Dayton also opposes some measures that Republicans consider reforms, such as a House plan to remove the state Public Utilities Commission from deciding whether Enbridge energy can reconstruct the Line 3 oil pipeline in northern Minnesota.
“I won’t let that happen,” Dayton said.

The governor seldom threatens a veto, but his chief financial officer, Myron Frans, told reporters that he would recommend most spending bills written by Republicans be vetoed.

“The Legislature’s math just does not add up,” Frans said, calling it “fake math,” “fuzzy math” and “alternative math.”

Democrats see several issues with GOP bills.

“There are significant problems with their lack of K-12 education funding, significant (problems) with their lack of development with their investment in higher education,” Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, said.

The simple explanation of the difference in Dayton and legislative plans is that Dayton wants to spend more money and Republicans want deep tax cuts.

Daudt, considered a likely governor candidate, complained that Dayton has added a record number of people to public health care programs. “If the governor thinks that is great and is good for prosperity and how Minnesota should operate, I think Minnesotans need to start looking for a new governor.”
The differences, Frans said, are “reminiscent of 2011.” That is when Dayton and legislative Republicans could not agree on a state budget, sending government into a three-week shutdown.

Gazelka, meanwhile, said he remains optimistic work will wrap on on time. “It just feels a little different this year. I get a feeling that people want to get done on time. I think the people want us to do it. I think the House, Senate and governor all realize that will be a positive thing.”

Where some key issues stand

Education/children

Tuition freeze/student debt Legislation to freeze tuition at some state-run colleges remains in play, as do provisions to give tax breaks for families saving for college and graduates facing loan repayments.

E-12 education Deep disagreements exist over whether more money should be earmarked to increase the number of classes that are available for 4 year olds. Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton wants to emphasize that, but Republicans who control the Legislature generally favor giving schools more flexibility about how to spend the money.

Health/corrections

Sex offenders Legislation calls for increased penalties for some sex offenders, but it awaits final negotiations. Also undecided is whether more money will be added to state sex offender treatment programs.
Health insurance Early in the session, legislation became law to ease 2017 health insurance premiums on individual policies. A bill awaiting negotiations also would establish a “reinsurance” fund to help pay for big claims. Other health insurance reforms also are in the works.

Opioids Provisions remain under consideration to increase regulation of opioid drugs and add treatment options and provide more education about the drugs.

Private prison A bill allowing the state to enter into a lease-to-buy agreement at a private Appleton prison remains in play, although the governor says he will fight it.

Money

State budget There is a $1.65 billion projected surplus in the next two-year budget, and there remains plenty of disagreement over what to do with the money. However, if tax cuts are treated as spending — the usual way budgets are built — the House, Senate and governor each would spend about $46 billion.

Taxes There is a huge difference in how much should be offered in tax breaks for Minnesotans. The governor wants $300 million in cuts, senators supported $900 million and the House voted to lower taxes $1.3 billion.

Construction

Transportation Nearly everyone agrees that Minnesota needs to increase road and bridge spending by billions of dollars over the next decade. However, while the Democratic governor wants to boost gasoline and vehicle license fees, Republicans insist on no tax increase, but dedicating some existing sales tax revenues for transportation. The parties also dispute the need for transit funding.

Bonding The governor proposed on the second day of the legislative session that the state sell $1.5 billion in bonds to finance public works projects ranging from water treatment plants to state building repairs. A Senate committee examined a much smaller bill, but no vote is scheduled; the House does not have a bill in place.

Buffers The state’s 2-year-old law requiring vegetative buffers around water should be eased and delayed, Republicans say. Dayton said he will veto any bill that weakens or delays his buffer program.

Power plant Lawmakers passed, and the governor signed, a bill to allow a gas-fired power plant in Becker a coal one slated to be closed.

Other

Stadium Officials of a board governing the U.S. Bank Stadium, home to the football Vikings, got in trouble for inviting friends and family to use luxury suites free of charge. Legislation is being considered to ban the practice and make changes in the stadium’s governing board.

Sunday sales A years-long legislative debate ended this year when lawmakers voted to allow liquor stores to open on Sundays starting in July.

Real ID Soon after legislators return from their Easter-Passover break, negotiators begin to work out differences in bills the House and Senate passed to make state identification cards such as driver’s license adhere to federal rules. The so-called Real ID could be used to board airlines and enter federal facilities.

Protesters Protests that closed down Twin Cities freeways drew several bills that would regulate them. Provisions remain in play to increase criminal penalties for protesters who intentionally obstructs traffic.