Minnesota poultry farmers found themselves in the midst of political bickering Wednesday as high-level negotiators pushed time limits for resolving Democrat-Republican state budget differences.
Rep. David Bly, D-Northfield, asked the House to debate a bill providing state agencies money to respond to avian flu issues.
“Time is running out,” Bly said during his unsuccessful attempt. “I am very worried.”
But House Agriculture Finance Chairman Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, assured Bly and other representatives about flu and other budget issues that “we are absolutely committed to getting done on time.”
The House debate came while Gov. Mark Dayton and legislative leaders talked about state spending levels for the next two years, but they refused to make any public comments about how those negotiations are going.
Dayton, Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, and others involved in the high-level closed-door talks placed a “cone of silence” on themselves, although there were vague reports of “progress.”
“We’re all still at the table, and we’re all still speaking friendly, so that’s good,” Daudt said Wednesday night as negotiators began a dinner break.
When he left for lunch, Daudt said that “we’re making progress (in) all areas.”
Dayton did not appear in public and Bakk at one point said “I hope” a deal could be reached Wednesday.
However, that appeared less likely as talks stretched well into the night.
Even with the self-imposed gag order, bits and pieces came out. For instance, Senate Tax Chairman Rod Skoe, D-Clearbrook, said that major transportation funding increases likely will not happen this year.
“It seems to me that the transportation conversation for the year is over for the issue and not going anywhere,” Skoe said. “It appears transportation is a next-year issue.”
Increasing transportation funding has been a high priority for Dayton and many in the Legislature, but Democrats want to add a new tax to gasoline, which Republicans strongly oppose. And Republicans want to take money from other programs to fund road and bridge improvements, an approach Democrats fight.
The overall budget talks revolved around how to divide state revenue among programs included in a $40 billion-plus, two-year state budget.
The state Constitution requires the 2015 Legislature to adjourn Monday, and most long-time Capitol observers appear to think the governor and leaders must agree on how much will be spent in various budget areas Thursday at the latest.
“I am very worried that things will fall apart and it will not move forward,” Bly said about avian flu program funding.
Ironically, the poultry industry got good news elsewhere on Wednesday. No new flocks were found to be infected which is appearing to be the new normal. That leaves nearly 5.8 million birds dead among 85 flocks in 21 counties.
Funds are provided in an overall agriculture bill for state workers responding to the emergency as well as increasing bird flu research funding. A provision also is being considered to provide low-interest loans to farmers whose flocks were infected.
There also is discussion about negotiators adding direct aid to farmers with infected flocks.
The House voted 72-50 against Bly’s request to immediately debate the avian flu funding measure.
In the Senate, meanwhile, Sen. Sean Nienow, R-Cambridge, failed in his attempt to prepare a bill that would allow state government to continue to function even if lawmakers could not settle on a new budget. It is similar to bills discussed, but rejected, four years ago when the state eventually underwent a three-week government shutdown after Democrat Dayton and legislative Republicans could not agree on a budget.
Many lawmakers expressed pessimism about getting done on time.
“I am not sure as I stand here today that we can get everything done by the appointed deadline,” Sen. David Senjem, R-Rochester, said. “I would not bet $10 on it, quite frankly.”
— The House unanimously passed a bill to extend voting rights to National Guard members overseas.
Rights that other members of the military and civilians living overseas enjoy had not been granted to guard members. Rep. Kelly Fenton, R-Woodbury, said the legislation would continue a state tradition of allowing military personnel out of the country to vote.
The bill now goes to the Senate.
— Senators unanimously approved a Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, bill to establish a program to help track down suspects in the death or severe injury of law enforcement officers.
Known as a “blue alert” system, it would be similar to the amber alert program of alerting the public to child abductions. A blue alert would be issued statewide when an officer is killed or badly hurt.
Ingebrigtsen said a blue alert might be issued once or twice a year.
— Negotiators are considering how to spend revenue from a sales tax increase voters approved in 2008, known as the Legacy Fund, but remain a few million apart on some issues.
In general, negotiators are close. They propose giving clean water programs $225 million to $226 million, arts and culture programs about $100 million and parks and trails programs nearly $90 million.
Forum News Service reporter Robb Jeffries contributed to this report.