The 2015 Minnesota Legislature convened at noon Jan. 6 with a $1 billion surplus and a greater Minnesota focus.
It ended Saturday morning (the House adjourned at 1:30 a.m., followed by the Senate at 1:56 a.m.) amid disputes, more than $800 million left unspent (after the surplus grew to $1.9 billion) and debating greater Minnesota-centric legislation.
In between, Democrats and Republicans alike failed in their priorities of a big-time boost in transportation funding. Republicans failed to lower taxes $2 billion. Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton failed to get universal school for 4 year olds.
In the end, the Legislature passed a $42 billion, two-year budget, the level Dayton sought early in the year.
The governor signed the budget bills Saturday morning.
In a news conference Dayton said, “Last fall, Minnesota voters chose divided political leadership for our state. This legislative session ended in that same way: with legislators sharply divided over key issues, like the optimal amounts of taxes and expenditures, social services, and transportation improvements.
“Nevertheless, legislators achieved significant progress in providing better care and education for our youngest and most vulnerable citizens: children, who were previously considered too young for structured elementary education. Minnesotans at the other end of life will also benefit from increased funding for nursing homes, personal care attendants, and other supportive services.”
The governor added that another positive result is that the remaining surplus, combined with the budgeted reserve and cash flow account, has left the state with a positive balance of almost $2.5 billion.
“It stands in welcome contrast to the financial uncertainties of recent years,” Dayton said.
It was greater Minnesota issues that were deeply embedded in the final major debate of the special session, what to do with agriculture and environment funding issues.
There was little disagreement about agriculture spending, other than some Democrats saying that farm funding should have passed earlier so avian flu-related programs could be funded when poultry flocks were being hit hardest.
“When this bill becomes law, Minnesota will be able to continue to protect and preserve its food supply, make needed investments in research and have the funds necessary to respond to the avian flu outbreak.” said Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, who leads the House Agriculture Finance Committee.
The environmental issues, also mostly involving greater Minnesota, were hotly debated.
“This is a responsible bill that meets the needs of our state agencies such as the Department of Natural Resources and the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources,” said Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, House environment chairman. “The bill also includes a number of policy reforms and initiatives that have bipartisan support.”
One provision in the wide-ranging bill disbands the Citizens’ Board, a Minnesota Pollution Control Agency entity that makes pollution-related rulings.
A second part of the bill would ease regulations on proposed copper and nickel mines in the northeast by not requiring them to follow solid waste rules.
The two environmental issues delayed the end of the special session for hours. Senators removed them from the bill at one point, something many lawmakers said was a violation of rules Dayton and legislative leaders signed, promising to not support amendments during the special session.
House members quickly rejected the Senate changes, sending the bill back for a post-midnight Senate vote.
On the mining provision, Sen. Chris Eaton, D-Brooklyn Park, said she wanted the stricter law and said she does not oppose mining. “I oppose doing it when it pollutes the rest of our state.”
Bill sponsor Sen. David Tomassoni, D-Chisholm, jumped up to protest: “The comment that it pollutes the rest of the state is an outrageous comment.”
Sen. Bill Weber, R-Luverne, said provisions in the environment bill help small, rural cities like Luverne, where he was mayor.
A part of the bill gives a break to small towns and counties in pollution rules. He said that even small cities can spend millions of dollars on sewage treatment, and in the end make only small improvements in water quality.
The House vote for the bill was 78-47 and in the Senate early Saturday it was 38-29, with Republicans carrying the weight in both chambers. The Senate took several votes on the bill and amendments before passing the same version as did the House.
Among provisions in the ag-environment bill are:
— Nearly $23 million for the avian flu outbreak.
— New grant program for cities with populations less than 45,000 in greater Minnesota to promote recycling.
— Repeal aquatic invasive species trailer decal law, and replacing it with a requirement that boat owners sign an affirmation stating they will abide by invasive species laws.
Another bill greater Minnesota watched is one funding public works projects, the last big bill up in the special session early Saturday.
House members voted 96-25 for the bill, with senators approving it 48-18.
The bill, funded by the state selling bonds, will spend $373 million, with $180 million of the bonds repaid by general tax revenue.
Projects in the bill include rerouting U.S. 53 in northeastern Minnesota to make way for a taconite mine expansion, local road and bridge work, flood prevention and recovery efforts, state Capitol renovation work, southwest Minnesota water supply work, college improvements and poultry testing facilities.
Railroad crossings also were funded, although not at the amount Democrats wanted: $3.8 million for a Willmar railroad crossing, $4.7 million for one in Plymouth and $460,000 for a third at Rainy River.