Session to be short but full

Legislative leaders

By Don Davis

Expect a minimum wage increase, but no tax increase, when Minnesota legislators return to St. Paul for the year at noon Tuesday.

Expect widespread agreement on borrowing $840 million for public works projects, but not so much agreement on where to spend that money.

Expect movement toward increased long-term care funding, but not a requirement to pay bottle and can deposits.

Most importantly, expect Minnesota’s 201 legislators to pack everything they can into a sort legislative session that may not feature as many headline-grabbing bills and long, dramatic debates as in recent years.

Each lawmaker has bills he or she wants to pass. More than 1,800 bills remain available to debate from last year, and House members have introduced nearly 300 more before the session even begins.

They will not have much time.

The state constitution requires that the session beginning Tuesday (sessions often begin in January) end no later than May 19, and legislative leaders say they will take a 10-day Easter-Passover break in April.

In an interview, Gov. Mark Dayton said there could be problems “if they try to do everything.”

When Minnesota became a state, legislators met every other year. When they began meeting annually, the second year was to handle any leftover business and fund public works projects.

“Now it has become a complete session unto itself,” Dayton said. “It does concern me.”

A proposal to increase the minimum wage has received the most hype in the run-up to this year’s session. Democrats generally agree it needs to go up, and they control the Legislature and governor’s office, but they differ on details.

Rural Republicans are especially concerned that a $9.50-an-hour minimum wage is a dangerous reach.

“For rural Minnesota, $9.50 is way too high,” said Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa.

Gazelka said he fears rural jobs would be lost if the wage were raised that much.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, has similar concerns, especially for nursing homes. At a Forum News Service-sponsored forum, he said he supports a higher wage, but insists on raising nursing home workers’ wages first.

“I’m going to push a green button for a minimum wage bill …” Bakk said. “What I don’t want is to find out that the nursing home in the city of Ely is going to close.”

Supporters say thousands would see a pay increase.

The state’s current minimum wage is $6.15 and the federal wage, which because it is higher governs most employers, is $7.25.

“I hope we can move it out in the first couple weeks of the session,” said House Speaker Paul Thissen, D-Minneapolis.

An issue not likely to move fast is the bonding bill that funds public works projects with money borrowed by the state selling bonds.

GOP and DFL legislative leaders agreed at the pre-session forum that $840 million is a good figure for bonding.

But they have two disagreements, even as they agree on spending $126 million to finish funding Capitol building renovation.

First is what projects should be funded. Republicans tend to shy away from city civic centers, while Democrats like to fund them. House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said bonding should focus on things like fixing buildings and transportation needs, not building new facilities.

The second disagreement arose at the forum when Bakk and Thissen suggested that some of the state’s expected surplus could fund projects above what is spent in the bonding bill. They suggested projects such as transportation improvements and the Capitol renovation, while GOP leaders wanted to limit public works spending to $840 million.

Legislative leaders agreed that many decisions, such as bonding, depend on what they learn Friday when state officials release what economists expect the state’s revenue picture to look like in the next few months.

Thissen appears to be taking tax increases off the table, including a tax legislative transportation finance chairmen want to add to motor vehicle fuel sales. Dayton also said he does not support a fuel tax increase.

Dayton, Thissen and Republicans support ending a tax on farm equipment repair that passed last year. The governor and Republicans also want to eliminate other taxes, including those on warehouse storage and on telecommunications equipment.

The governor said he wants to cut some middle-class taxes while only raising spending a little. He will release a plan for budget changes after he knows more about projected revenues.

Thissen rejects the transportation chairmen’s proposal to tax crude oil transported through Minnesota to raise funds for emergency personnel to be trained to fight oil fires. The speaker said surplus money could be used for that. Dayton also favors surplus money, if available, for oil disaster preparedness.

The news service forum produced bipartisan agreement among leaders about the need to increase funding for long-term care. However, like many other spending issues, supporters of that will have to wait until after Friday’s revenue report to see their chances.

“It is a priority,” said Senate Minority Leader David Hann of Eden Prairie.

Other areas that may or may not be issues this year:

– Thissen said there will be no vote, this year or maybe ever, on a proposal to require deposits on bottles and cans.

– The House rules committee in the next few days will discuss whether to allow a $63 million Senate office building to be constructed. Also part of the project is $27 million for parking, to be funded by charges for using the facilities. “There hasn’t been a full public hearing on this,” Hann said.

– No action is expected on frac sand mining, which has become a big issue in southeastern Minnesota, where several local governments are trying to slow the growth of the mines due to environmental concerns.

– Allowing Sunday alcohol sales will be a tough sell, Thissen said, since a bill to do that received only 20 House votes last year.

– Democrats, who control the House and Senate, do not expect any action on MNsure, the troubled health insurance exchange. Republicans, meanwhile, would like to change its administrative structure or get rid of MNsure.

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Key Minnesota Legislature dates

Tuesday: Annual session begins at noon.

Feb. 28: State revenue forecast released, informing lawmakers how much money they have available to spend.

March 21: First committee deadline: The last day committees in the chamber where policy bills originate can approve them.

March 28: Second committee deadline: The last day committees can act on policy bills that met the other chamber’s deadline.

April 4: Third committee deadline: The final day to act on major spending bills.

April 11-21: Easter-Passover break.

May 19: The final day the state Constitution allows the Legislature to meet in regular session.

Note: Tax-related bills have no deadlines. Also, even if a bill misses a deadline, rules committees in the two chambers may allow it to advance. Bills that failed in committee still may be attached to other bills in the form of amendments.

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The 2014 Minnesota Legislature gathers Tuesday in a short session that should feature financing public works projects, but it take up of a lot of issues.
Bonding: Gov. Mark Dayton proposes spending about $1 billion on new construction and repair work, money most obtained by the state selling bonds. State and local projects ranging from park improvements to new community centers will be considered, and much of the money likely will go to state-run colleges and universities to keep facilities up to date. Democratic legislative leaders lean toward selling about $840 million in bonds and paying for other projects in cash if it is available.
Budget: Minnesota lawmakers and Gov. Mark Dayton last year approved a $38 billion, two-year budget. Other than some tweaks, little new spending is expected to be approved this year.
Bullying: Efforts are underway to strengthen the state’s anti-bullying law.
Constitutional amendments: Not many proposals to change the state Constitution have gained traction this year. But Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, plans to push one that would require a super majority of legislators to approve putting an amendment in front of voters. Now, a simple majority is needed. Another proposed amendment would trim the number of judges on Minnesotans’ ballots, but Bakk gives it less of a chance to pass this year.
Construction zones: Bills have been introduced to outlaw mobile telephone use and increase speeding fines in highway construction zones.
Elections: Secretary of State Mark Ritchie established an online voter registration process last year, but many legislators say he does not have that authority. So legislative election leaders say they plan to pass a bill approving online registration, which at this point appears to have little opposition.
Gay marriage: Opponents of same-sex marriage plan to offer a bill that would make it clear businesses owned by people who oppose such marriages are not required to service gay weddings.
Gender equality: Ways to improve women’s pay and other aspects of their lives will be discussed. The fact that they earn less than men in the same jobs is a prime topic.
Homelessness: A statewide homeless coalition wants the Legislature to approve $100 million to build affordable housing. That is twice the amount the governor recommends.
Legislative offices: Republicans and many House members say a proposed $63 million Senate office building is too pricey and the issue will come up for debate.
Medical marijuana: Allowing some Minnesota patients to use marijuana to relieve extreme pain has been discussed in the session’s run-up, and likely will be a topic of hearings. Just before the session is to begin, there are signals that a compromise is possible between medical marijuana supporters and law enforcement groups that have opposed it.
Mining: House Speaker Paul Thissen promises that no mining-related legislation will pass this year. The main bill being discussed had been one requiring high financial contributions by owners of proposed copper-nickel mines to ensure that any environmental damage caused by mines would be fixed after they close. Legislative leaders said they also do not expect any frac sand mining bill to receive a vote.
Minimum wage: Unions have led the charge in campaigning for a higher minimum wage. While proponents want it upped to $9.50 an hour, from the current $6.15, Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk’s concern that such a wage will hurt nursing homes looking to hire people could keep the wage lower. If Congress does not act to raise the wage and the state does, the higher Minnesota number would govern most wages in the state.
Payday loans: Religious and other groups want a clamp-down on payday lenders that they say charge high interest rates and take advantage of poor Minnesotans.
Politics: State House and governor elections this year will influence what happens. After raising taxes more than $2 billion last year, Democrats who control the House, Senate and governor’s office fear voters could retaliate against them if they raise taxes any more. Republicans likely will talk about the tax increases often, as well as problems faced by MNsure, the state’s troubled online health insurance marketplace. Electoral politics never will be far from the surface as the governor and all House districts are up for election.
Propane: Recent shortages and high prices of propane are likely to drive efforts to increase storage in Minnesota so the fuel may be bought in the summer when it is cheaper and stored in the state for use during fall grain drying and winter heating seasons.
Public notice: Legislation is expected to be considered to relax a requirement for local governments to print legal notices in newspapers, and counties could post it on their websites only. Local governments say that would save money, but newspaper industry leaders say fewer citizens would see information about government.
Sex offenders: A federal judge says the Legislature must change the state’s sex offender program. If not, he could take control of it. He has ruled that the state should not continue its practice of committing sex offenders to indefinite treatment in state hospitalS after they complete their criminal sentences.
Synthetic drugs: Lawmakers probably will pass bills making synthetic drugs, items such as bath salts, more difficult to buy and to educate Minnesotans about their dangers.
Taxes: Tax and spending work occurred last year, but some tax adjustments could come in 2014. Most legislators appear to favor eliminating a tax on farm implement repairs. Many also have discussed getting rid of other taxes lawmakers passed last year, such as a tax on storing goods in a warehouse someone else owns and one on technology equipment.
Transportation funding: A broad coalition of Minnesota organizations proposes, with key legislators’ backing, to raise taxes on motor vehicle fuel as a way to better fund road and transit projects. But House Speaker Paul Thissen, D-Minneapolis, said the new taxes will not pass this year.
Transportation safety: Transportation accidents and spills of crude oil, mostly from western North Dakota, prompted House and Senate transportation finance committee chairmen to propose a fee on oil transportation to fund improved training and equipment for emergency personnel. The House speaker says no new taxes are needed, but the state could find ways to help local officials deal with the issue.

Dayton works at home after surgery

By Don Davis

Hip surgery will crimp Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton’s style as the Minnesota Legislature convenes for the year Tuesday.

In his first three years in office, Dayton frequently met with rank-and-file legislators from both parties about a great many issues. But since his Feb. 10 hip surgery, and his Valentine’s Day release from Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., Dayton has been in a brace and confined to the official governor’s residence in a swanky St. Paul neighborhood. And he likely will remain there for a while.

“I expect I will be involved and as time goes on I will be involved more,” the 67-year-old governor said during a Forum News Service telephone interview.

“I wish I could be at the Capitol,” he said, adding that he hopes people understand he cannot do that due to surgery.

Only his mobility is affected, not his thinking, Dayton said.

“Fortunately, none of my brain cells reside in my hip,” he said.

Dayton predicted he will talk to legislators via telephone rather than in person early this legislative session.

The early part of the session may be busier than usual. With a short session this year, after starting later than usual, legislators face a March 21 deadline to pass many of their bills. Committee schedules in the first few weeks of session are full and some committees already plan night meetings, something usually reserved for later in the session.

Dayton said he has a Monday meeting planned with House Speaker Paul Thissen, D-Minneapolis, and Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook.

One of his priorities may take a hit because he cannot lobby lawmakers in person: his concept of an “unsession.”

Dayton long has said he wants the Legislature to undo things this year that are not needed, like repealing obsolete laws. But at a Forum News Service-sponsored forum with legislative leaders fellow Democrats did not appear to have the unsession enthusiasm that Dayton shows. It was not on a DFL session priority list.

“I don’t remember that the unsession was my initiative,” Bakk said when asked about it.

Bakk said that the governor’s unsession proposal poses a political danger. A bill that overturns an outdated gun law, for instance, could end up being amended with a controversial provision that would force long, complex political debates with no public input on bills that were supposed to be routine.

The Senate leader said he told Dayton in November that he needed to “be ready to go” with unsession proposals since lawmakers do not plan to stick around long. In the interview, Dayton said he would unveil his plans in early March.

While Republicans have not rejected the unsession concept, House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, echoed what many in the GOP say is their idea: “Go back and fix the mistakes of the last session.” In Republican eyes, that include eliminating some tax increases approved in 2013, as well as killing the state’s MNsure health insurance marketplace, besieged by problems since its October launch. Democrats, however, support MNsure and say such talk politicizes the unsession concept.

Thissen said that he supports efforts to repeal 40 of 160o state boards that do not function or are inactive.

“I hope that the bipartisan support for it isn’t taking your pet policy project and putting it in an unsession bucket,” Thissen said.

Judge tells Legislature to act on sex offender treatment program

By Don Davis

A federal judge is putting pressure on the Minnesota Legislature to change how the state deals with some sex offenders.

Thursday, five days before the Minnesota Legislature is to convene for its 2014 session, Judge Donovan Frank wrote in a ruling that state lawmakers need to take action now.

His comments came in a ruling in which he refused to dismiss a lawsuit by patients of the Minnesota Sex Offender Program that claims they are being held unconstitutionally.

Frank also ordered experts to interview each of the program’s nearly 700 patients, in state hospitals in St. Peter and Moose Lake. He said he needs those experts’ opinions before he can rule in the case.

“If the evidence requires it, the court will act,” Frank wrote. “But it is the Minnesota Legislature that is best equipped to develop policies and pass laws — within the limits of the Constitution — that both protect public safety and preserve the rights of the class.”

He added: “The time for legislative action is now.”

County prosecutors can ask judges to send what they deem as the most serious sex offenders to the state hospitals after they complete prison terms. The patients claim in their lawsuit that that amounts to continued imprisonment without being sentenced, which violates the federal Constitution.

The patients are held in prison-like confinement and only two have been released.

Frank’s comments came 24 hours after Minnesota Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, said that it was possible that Frank would rule before lawmakers return to session. That would put pressure on legislators to take action to avoid federal takeover of the state program, which could end up being far more expensive than if the state maintains control.

In a Wednesday pre-session meeting with reporters, legislative leaders agreed that any solution to the problem needs to be bipartisan, but they could offer no path for the program to take.

House Speaker Paul Thissen, D-Minneapolis, said he hopes that a bipartisan group of lawmakers meeting on the subject can find the answer.

Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, agreed that both parties must be part of the solution, and legislators should not wait for Frank to take over the program.

In Frank’s Thursday ruling, he brought up the possibility that patients could be released.

Hann said Minnesota has one of the largest and most expensive sex offender populations in the country.

Senators last year passed a bill to begin a response to the lawsuit, but it never became law.

Legislators have been looking into how to allow sex offenders to receive medical and mental treatment and eventually be able to be released. At the same time, legislators say the public must be protected.

The issue has been a major one in Minnesota since University of North Dakota student Dru Sjodin was kidnapped from a Grand Forks, N.D., mall on Nov. 22, 2003. Months later her body was found near near Crookston, Minn. A convicted sex offender who had served his prison time was convicted of her kidnapping and murder.

The man convicted of the crime, Alfonso Rodriguez Jr., had been released from prison, but not committed to the sex offender treatment program.

Even before Sjodin’s body was found, Minnesota leaders began efforts to keep sex offenders locked up as long as possible. That meant a huge increase in the number of sex offenders judges sent to the treatment program.

Frank ordered the state to look at less restrict ways to hold sex offender patients. However, protests arose when Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson announced a plan to put some offenders in less restrictive facilities and Gov. Mark Dayton quickly put a stop to the plan late last year.

The judge wrote that he is sending experts to interview patients to help determine the validity of their claims that they are being held for punishment, not treatment. He said that if the prisoners are right, they are being held unconstitutionally.

Experts are needed to talk to patients and staff, and to examine other parts of the program, Frank wrote.

State to consider oil disaster aid

Leaders meet the media

By Danielle Killey

Local emergency responders say they want the state’s help handling safety concerns as crude oil travels on railroads, highways and pipelines through their communities, but the Legislature has little time to act on the issue this year and many questions to answer.

The Minnesota Legislature’s 2014 session begins Tuesday, and committees must initially pass bills less than a month after they convene. On Wednesday, legislative leaders could not give any specifics about what the state can do to help.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said lawmakers need more information about local entities’ response capabilities and necessities before determining the next steps.

“We need to inventory what’s out there,” he said during a 90-minute Forum News Service-sponsored meeting in which legislative leaders briefed reporters from around the state about issues expected to arise during the session.

Goodhue County Sheriff Scott McNurlin said local agencies are doing that research as well and are in the initial stages of looking into what kind of specialized plans and equipment would be needed in an emergency situation, such as a December train derailment and fire in Casselton, N.D.

“It’s just one of those new challenges that, quite honestly, a year or two ago we didn’t face,” the sheriff said.

The state has a limited capacity for managing rail safety, lawmakers said.

“A lot of the regulation of the railroads, in particular, are at the federal level,” House Speaker Paul Thissen, D-Minneapolis, said. “But it still seems to me that a place the state can step in is making sure we are prepared to respond adequately if an unfortunate event … were to happen.”

“We need to make sure that our emergency responders are ready to respond,” House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said.

The issue was one of many discussed in the Forum News Service briefing. Gov. Mark Dayton did not attend because of hip surgery last week. He turned down an invitation to call in to the briefing.

Democratic leaders said they think lawmakers will vote to increase the minimum wage this session.

Leaders also discussed plans for a public works borrowing bill, citing infrastructure as a key need, as well as the possibility of repealing business-to-business taxes passed last year.

A proposal from Rep. Frank Hornstein, D-Minneapolis, and Sen. Scott Dibble, D-Minneapolis, presented last week would establish a 0.01 cent per gallon tax on all crude oil transported in Minnesota to help fund improved safety. The money would be used to help local agencies fund equipment and training to respond to situations such as oil spills.

“There’s going to have to be some kind of funding stream” to help cover planning, training and any needed specialized equipment, McNurlin said, but the question remains whether that should come from the oil, rail and pipeline companies; or state, federal government and local governments.

“These are all questions that need to be answered,” he said. “This is all relatively new to us.”

Legislative leaders weren’t sold on the tax, though some said funds for state support could come from other places, such as a budget surplus.

Rail cars have been transporting hazardous materials for years, but concerns have increased after recent incidents, including the North Dakota derailment and a Canadian Pacific train leaking a trail of about 12,000 gallons of crude oil earlier this month between Red Wing and Winona.

“The public safety folks in a small community or a large community aren’t necessarily equipped to address that,” Thissen said.

McNurlin said local leaders want the state to help them navigate the situation and deal with federal regulations.

“It’s going to take several layers of bureaucracy and government getting on the same page,” he said.

Senate, ex-staffer settle suit

By Don Davis

A longtime Republican activist agreed Thursday to drop a lawsuit claiming gender discrimination against the Minnesota Senate.

Former Senate GOP spokesman Michael Brodkorb will get $30,000 in severance pay in the deal, which already cost state taxpayers more than $300,000 in legal fees. He was fired after senators discovered he and then-Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch, R-Buffalo, were having an affair.

Brodkorb said he was happy to end the suit because he “got my life back,” and Senate leaders said they were pleased to end the messy case.

“This agreement permanently dismisses Mr. Brodkorb’s claims in their entirety while providing the limited severance pay that was offered to him before he commenced litigation against the Senate,” said Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook.

Brodkorb sued the Senate because, he said, female employees had not lost their jobs when they had affairs with male senators.

Bakk and Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, said the agreement with Brodkorb includes provisions that:

– Brodkorb acknowledges the sex discrimination lawsuit would not survive in court.

– No more claims against the state will be entered by Brodkorb.

– The Senate will not pay Brodkorb legal fees.

The Senate Rules and Administration Committee must approve the agreement.

“We have said all along that the Senate acted appropriately in this matter,” Hann said.

Brodkorb’s attorneys have been interviewing senators and others believed to have been involved in past affairs. Brodkorb said he has a long list of such affairs.

Brodkorb ran a partisan Republican blog before he was hired as Senate Republican spokesman. When Republicans took control of the Senate in 2011, he became one of Koch’s top aides.

In the fall of 2011, word began to spread among Senate employees about the affair. In December of that year, some senators confronted Koch about the issue. Within a couple of days she resigned her leadership position and some Republican senators told reporters about the affair, without naming Brodkorb.

It did not take long for news stories to mention Brodkorb, and he followed with his lawsuit.

Brodkorb had sought more than $500,000.

Lawmakers taking last look at proposed disaster relief bill

By Don Davis

Key Minnesota lawmakers looked over a proposed disaster-relief bill Thursday night, facing a Friday deadline if a special legislative session is to be called for Monday.

The bill, as proposed, would send $4.5 million to 18 counties affected by June 20-26 storms and floods and free about $219,000 for governments in Rock and Nobles counties still recovering from an April ice storm.

The ice storm funding was the most Gov. Mark Dayton could get, after last week promising that he would insist on giving the two counties $1 million.

“The governor has been a strong, strong advocate for providing that funding,” Dayton spokesman Matt Swenson said. “But in his conversation with legislative leaders and legislative membership, he just can’t find support for it. There seems to be strong bipartisan opposition. … He said he has tried to be as persuasive as he possibly can.”

Swenson said that $219,000 in grants available to Nobles and Rock counties and the city of Worthington are in the bill in part because of Dayton’s efforts.

The special disaster-relief session was not officially set as of early Thursday evening.

Friday is the deadline Dayton gave four legislative leaders to agree to specific details in a disaster-relief bill. If they agree today, Dayton said, he will sign an order calling lawmakers into special session on Monday.

“At this point, it hasn’t been agreed to by all five leaders,” Swenson said late Thursday afternoon.

No public opposition had surfaced to the two parts of the bill:

– $4.5 million to help 18 counties recover from June 20-26 floods.

– Giving Rock and Nobles counties $219,00 in grants, an amount the southwest Minnesota communities have not been able to collect after legislators approved providing them $250,000 earlier this year.

Swenson said that legislative leaders are reviewing bill language, but he did not know if an in-person meeting is needed before Dayton calls a special session. No meetings are scheduled among the governor and legislative leaders.

A week ago, Dayton said that he would insist that $1 million be appropriated to Nobles and Rock counties for ice storm recovery. But minutes later Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said he would not allow that money to be sent to southwestern Minnesota because other disaster-relief efforts, such as one in his northeastern Minnesota area a year ago, did not get that kind of aid.

If the special session is called, House and Senate committees will meet after the session begins at 10 a.m. Monday, followed by the full chambers debating the issue. It is to last no longer than until 7 a.m. Tuesday and no other issues will be allowed to come up.

The $4.5 million is for 18 counties, going along with more than $13 million of federal money already promised. State money would come from funds not spent last year after northern Minnesota floods and wind storms.

The counties to get part of the $4.5 million are Benton, Big Stone, Douglas, Faribault, Fillmore, Freeborn, Grant, Hennepin, Houston, McLeod, Morrison, Pope, Sibley, Stearns, Stevens, Swift, Traverse and Wilkin counties.

The April ice storm caused an estimated $26 million damage in five southwestern Minnesota counties. The Legislature in May approved $1.5 million in aid to match federal recovery funds, with another $250,000 for other aid.

Local governments report having difficulty getting most of the $250,000, prompting the new plan to issue the remaining money as grants.

Much of the April damage was to private utilities, which under current law cannot receive state help.

Special session decision: school payments vs. farmer tax

GOP leaders Hann, Daudt

By Don Davis

Republicans who essentially set the agenda for a special legislative session said Wednesday that it was more important to repay schools than to overturn a new tax affecting farmers.

So a Sept. 9 Minnesota Legislature special session will only deal with funding disaster recovery, leaving intact a tax that began July 1 on farm implement repairs.

The session’s goal is to pass an estimated $4.7 million in aid for 18 counties scattered around the state affected by June 20-26 storms and floods and another $1 million for Nobles and Rock counties in southwestern Minnesota that need more money after a massive April ice storm.

Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton insisted that the four top legislative leaders, Democratic and Republican, sign off on the agenda for the special session. All agreed about the disaster aid, but Republicans wanted to overturn several taxes the Democratic-controlled Legislature passed in May.

Dayton said he would consider the broader tax action only if Republicans gave him specific places they would get money to replace revenue lost if taxes were eliminated. Republicans, meanwhile, said they were ready to do that, but they decided Democrats were not serious about getting rid of the taxes.

Because GOP leaders would not sign off on the farm tax repeal, the decision to limit the session to disaster aid came down to them.

House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said the final decision was between giving farmers a $2 million-plus tax break a month and putting that money toward repaying schools funds the state borrowed from them.

“There really isn’t enough money to pay for both,” he said.

Dayton had said he wanted the farm tax elimination to be retroactive, so taxes paid so far would be refunded.

On Wednesday, the governor said he did not know if he could seek refunds if the tax is repealed when legislators return to regular session Feb. 25. In fact, he said he needs to check future revenue forecasts before deciding if he can support overturning any of the taxes enacted this year.

The special session is to begin at 10 a.m. Sept. 9 and wrap up by the end of that legislative day, which law defines as 7 a.m. Sept. 10. Legislative leaders said hearings on the disaster relief bill will come in the days before the session.

New on Wednesday was the decision to include $1 million for the southwestern Minnesota ice storm.

The storm was April 9-11 and layered the Cottonwood, Jackson, Murray, Nobles and Rock counties with ice. That, coupled with a subsequent snowstorm, left much of the area without power for days, and in some cases, a week. Up to 50 percent of trees in Worthington alone were affected, with many being cut down.

Lawmakers already put $1.75 million of state money into ice storm recovery efforts. Federal dollars are covering most of the damage, estimated at more than $26 million.

The main work of the special session is to fund the state’s portion of recovery from the June storms in Benton, Big Stone, Douglas, Faribault, Fillmore, Freeborn, Grant, Hennepin, Houston, McLeod, Morrison, Pope, Sibley, Stearns, Stevens, Swift, Traverse and Wilkin counties. Preliminary surveys show nearly $18 million in damage to public infrastructure.

The federal funds are limited to state and local governments, not for home or business damage.

When legislative leaders announced the special session deal Wednesday, they refused to say why the farm tax repeal fell of the table. But it did not take long for that to change as the two sides blamed the other.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said Republicans would not sign an agreement setting up a special session with just one tax overturned.

House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, first suggested that the farmer tax, which began July 1, be repealed during the special session. Bakk and Dayton soon agreed.

Republican leaders also said the tax should be repealed, but wanted a variety of other new taxes also killed.

Prime among the GOP targets was a tax due to begin in April on goods stored in warehouses. Republican and business leaders said the tax, even though it has not begun, was forcing some firms to delay business decisions.

Reporter Aaron Hagen contributed to this story.

No farm tax in special session

Legislative leaders

By Don Davis

Farmers must wait to see if legislators will overturn a new tax they pay.

Legislative leaders and Gov. Mark Dayton this morning could not agree on doing any more in a special session than approving less than $5 million in disaster relief. Before today’s meeting, everyone seemed to think that a new sales tax on farm implement repair should be canceled.

However, Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said Republicans would not sign an agreement setting up a special session with just one tax overturned.

Gov. Mark Dayton had said he wanted the farm tax, which costs farmers $2 million a month, to be retroactive, so taxes paid so far would be refunded.

The farm implement tax issue could come up when legislators return to regular session on Feb. 25.

The special session will begin at 10 a.m. Sept. 9 and last less than a day, as legislative leaders explained it. It will deal with appropriating an estimated $4.5 million as the state’s share of flood and storm recovery spending.

Federal funds are to take care of most recovery needs for local governments in 18 counties affected by June 20-26 storms and floods.

The Obama administration issued a disaster declaration for Benton, Big Stone, Douglas, Faribault, Fillmore, Freeborn, Grant, Hennepin, Houston, McLeod, Morrison, Pope, Sibley, Stearns, Stevens, Swift, Traverse and Wilkin counties. Preliminary surveys show nearly $18 million in damage to public infrastructure.

House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, first suggested that the farmer tax, which began July 1, be repealed during the special session. Bakk and Dayton soon agreed.

Republican leaders also said the tax should be repealed, but wanted a variety of other new taxes also killed.

Prime among the GOP targets was a tax due to begin in April on goods stored in warehouses. Republican and business leaders said the tax, even though it has not begun, was forcing some firms to delay business decisions.

Leaders change direction: Look for ways to avoid special session

Thissen

By Don Davis

Minnesota legislative leaders and Gov. Mark Dayton talked for days about the need to hold a special session to help communities recover from late-June floods and storms, but Friday night decided to look at ways to provide money short of calling all 201 legislators back to St. Paul.

However, if a special session is needed, four legislative leaders and Dayton agreed it would be Sept. 9.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said legislative and gubernatorial staff will work through the weekend to see if there is a legal way to transfer unused funds from previous disasters to help communities in 18 counties affected by the June 20-26 floods and storms.

“The law is a little ambiguous,” Bakk said.

Less than $5 million is needed after federal authorities promised to provide the bulk of the recovery money for local governments. Individual aid is not included.

If the money is available, legislative leaders said they support not calling a special session. Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, said that would save the state money.

The leaders and Dayton will gather again next week to discuss the next step, House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, said. He added that a final decision will come next week.

Dayton did not talk to reporters. He left immediately after meeting with legislative leaders to attend an event in honor of the 95th birthday of his father, Bruce Dayton.

The governor and DFL legislative leaders want to consider disaster aid as well as overturning a new tax on farm implement repair if there is a special session. Republicans want more taxes repealed.

Thissen said that no one has shown how the state would plug the revenue gap from overturning further taxes. Hann, however, said he is prepared to discuss ways to do that if a special session is scheduled.

Dayton originally proposed a special legislative session to only appropriate disaster-relief money. Last week, he agreed with Thissen that the farm tax also should be overturned. The tax, which started on July 1, costs farmers $2 million a month.

The Obama administration issued a disaster declaration for Benton, Big Stone, Douglas, Faribault, Fillmore, Freeborn, Grant, Hennepin, Houston, McLeod, Morrison, Pope, Sibley, Stearns, Stevens, Swift, Traverse and Wilkin counties after flooding and strong storms in late June.

Preliminary surveys show nearly $18 million in damage to public infrastructure.

State Capitol renovation disruption about ready to begin

A temporary new look for Capitol under renovation

By Don Davis

The Minnesota state Capitol grounds is about to look more like a construction site than the people’s house as some wonder if planners are getting the cart before the horse.

Those who work in the Capitol basement must move out in less than two months, the start of interior renovation, but Rep. Diane Loeffler, DFL-Minneapolis, told a Capitol Preservation Commission meeting Monday that plans she has seen show 50-inch touch screen televisions scattered around the Capitol once the nearly $273 million work is done in December 2016. Those details are in print, she said, while officials have yet to decide fundamental issues such as how much space various agencies will get in the newly renovated Capitol.

“You have to look at the whole,” she said.

Gov. Mark Dayton agreed, saying that the commission he leads needs to allocate space before other decisions are made. However, Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, explained to Dayton after the meeting that a law he signed in May gives space decisions to tenants such as the House, Senate, governor’s office and attorney general’s office, not the commission.

The commission plans to approve an overall renovation plan July 22 , but planners say many details will be decided later this year.

Whatever those details are, Minnesotans wanting to do business in the Capitol will face major inconveniences during construction.

“It’s going to be like a major highway project,” Dayton said, a problem during construction but worthwhile once it is done.

Two parking lots on the north side of the Capitol will be turned into construction areas, along with much of the space directly in front of the Capitol, which faces downtown St. Paul to the south. Two temporary parking lots will be built on the grassy Capitol mall, while preserving monuments and memorials scattered around the grounds.

Planners said they will try to keep construction activity as much out of sight as possible, but there is no way around the fact that the Capitol will be a construction zone at least through 2016.

“It should be cleaner, brighter, more accessible” once work is done, said David Hart, the man state officials hired to coordinate renovation.

Bakk said that the newly restored Capitol will look much like it did when it opened in 1905, but with modern conveniences and safety features.

Much of the Capitol work centers on updating aging heating and air conditioning systems, along with improving electrical wiring and technology systems such as computer connectivity.

The marble dome already has been repaired after years of water leaks and work has stepped up on fixing crumbling exterior marble walls. Some chunks large enough to hurt or kill a passerby have fallen in recent years.

Interior walls and doors will be restored to their original look and windows will be replaced. New elevators, stairways and restrooms will be added.

The original renovation price tag was $241 million, but in May, legislators added nearly $32 million more, mostly for repair of stone artwork on the outside of the Capitol. About $2.2 million of the new money was earmarked to allow some Capitol windows to be opened and closed.

Interior work begins Sept. 2 with demolition in the basement, where large air-handling equipment shares space with tenants such as the Minnesota Historical Society and the Capitol press corps.

Most basement dwellers will be moved to other space for the duration of the renovation project.

Everyone who works in the Capitol, including Dayton, will be displaced for a time. However, the plan is to hold legislative sessions in the House and Senate chambers every year during construction.

“I think it is really happening too fast,” Loeffler told the commission, saying she fears that not everyone’s needs are being heard.

She said, for example, that she wants a second-floor balcony overlooking downtown St. Paul to be reopened after years of being locked. “What a lovely space it was.”

Hart assured her that the balcony is being considered, but to make it handicapped accessible and safe may be costly.

He also told Loeffler that details such as televisions being scattered through the building, such as she read in renovation paperwork, have not been decided.

Dayton and Loeffler said officials need to step back and take a broader look at how the space should be divided before looking at details.

“What do we want for the Capitol of the state of Minnesota?” Dayton said needs to be answered.

State government notebook: Dayton cancels schedule after hurting hip

By Don Davis

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton is canceling this week’s public appearances after a weekend hip injury.

In a written explanation of what happened, Dayton said he slipped on stairs at his official residence Saturday en route to a Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party event.

“I took the bottom two steps together, landed on my left leg and pivoted toward the hallway,” he wrote. “Suddenly, I felt and heard a loud ‘pop’ in front of my left hipbone, followed by a spasm of pain. The problem was more than the pain, though. I couldn’t walk normally.”

Dayton, 66, said that after a day of rest Sunday, he was checked at the Mayo Clinic on Monday and found that a left hip muscle was torn and detached.

“It is not a major muscle; but it is a weight-bearing and stabilizing muscle, which explains my instability, which will persist until other muscles are trained to take over its functions,” he said.

The governor said he needs to use a cane or crutch for a couple of weeks and to return to Mayo if there is no improvement.

Dayton’s office said he will not appear at any public events the rest of the week. He appeared to be having a hard time walking when he hosted a ceremony Tuesday noting the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.

The governor was at Mayo for back surgery last December, which kept him grounded a month.

More money OK’d

The Minnesota Senate Rules Committee approved $500,000 more to pay legal bills in a lawsuit filed by a former staffer.

The action Wednesday was not intended to provide funds for a settlement, said Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook.

The suit was filed by Michael Brodkorb, who the Senate fired in December 2011 after it was discovered he and then-Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch, R-Buffalo, had an affair.

Brodkorb claims in his lawsuit that female Senate employees who had affairs with senators have not been fired. He claims gender discrimination.

The $500,000 the committee earmarked for potential legal costs Wednesday comes on top of nearly $230,000 the Senate already has paid to defend itself. Trial in the case is planned for a year from now.

Bakk said he did not know if the $500,000 is enough to fund the Senate legal team through the trial.

Democrats leave session with issues they still want to do

End of session chatter

By Don Davis and Danielle Killey

There is little doubt the 2013 Minnesota Legislature will be remembered for its historic vote to allow gay marriage and a $2 billion tax increase.

Democrats say the session that ended seconds before its midnight Monday adjournment deadline also will be remembered for “investing” in education, jobs and other key state programs. Republicans claim Democrats overreached when they gained control of the House, Senate and governor’s office for the first time in 22 years by hiking taxes too much, handing unions too much power and spending more than the state should.

But even if Democratic-Farmer-Laborites overreached, they did not accomplish everything they wanted.

Take the minimum wage. Democrats wanted to raise it from the current $6.15 an hour. Senators voted to up it to $7.75, and the House and Gov. Mark Dayton preferred something north of $9.

It became too sticky a subject to finish as the legislative session ended. But House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, and Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said it would be atop their to-do list when lawmakers return to St. Paul on Feb. 25.

Bakk said he would encourage legislative minimum wage negotiators to spend time before the next session to talk to businesses about what would work.

The speaker also said the 2014 priority list should include more infrastructure funding, especially for transportation and transit projects.

Dayton said he was disappointed an $800 million public works finance bill failed this year, and indicated he would push a big bill next year to help create thousands of jobs.

Next session also may be a time to make changes to provisions lawmakers passed in the past few days.

For instance, DFL leaders have sent strong signals that they will look to provisions in a tax bill that added sales taxes to some business purchases.

“We need to find out what some of the unintended consequences may be,” Bakk said.

Tax bill writers delayed implementation of some of the provisions until April, giving them time to rewrite what is needed.

The bill senators passed was supposed to exempt farm equipment repair from the new tax, Bakk said, but it did not. Also, farmers could be charged tax when buying fertilizer stored in facilities they do not own.

Other industries also could face issues with the new warehouse sales tax.

Rep. Tim Kelly, R-Red Wing, said companies need to know about their tax future, and firms such as Red Wing Shoes must make decisions and not wait until April to see if the tax changes.

Rural Republican lawmakers have lots of concerns with the sales tax being added to farm purchases and said they are not sure just what might be taxed.

House Majority Leader Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul, said she hopes a bill designed to prevent school bullying will come back and pass next year.

The 2013 session, which began Jan. 8, wrapped up with almost no time to spare even though Democrats control state government for the first time in 22 years.

Among the final bills lawmakers passed is one to allow some day care providers and personal care attendants to join unions. The House vote ended in shouting, in the most dramatic episode in the House this year.

On Tuesday, Democrats patted themselves on the back for a job well done in 2013. They praised their work on increasing education funding, reforming taxes, lowering property taxes and raising what the top 2 percent of Minnesota earners pay the state.

However, in briefing reporters, the governor and legislative leaders never mentioned two of the most contentious issues that brought thousands of people to the state Capitol: the unionization vote and legalizing same-sex marriage.

Right after the Legislature adjourned, Bakk highlighted funding all-day kindergarten and some tax reforms such as eliminating sales tax counties and cities pay as top achievements of the session.

He said the Democratic budget plan makes important investments and provides stability.

“It’s going to leave Minnesota a better place,” Bakk said.

He also said funding state Capitol renovation work was a priority for him.

“I wasn’t going home without the Capitol renovations,” Bakk said.

Republicans were not happy with the session.

“This budget’s going to be tough on everybody,” said Sen. Gary Dahms, R-Redwood Falls.

He said lawmakers did not need to pass such a large tax increase to fill a $627 million budget deficit.

House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said Democrats went too far: “If I would use one word to describe the session, it would be ‘overreach.’ ”

Thissen said that if Republicans want to call DFL action overreach, he can accept it.

“I think Minnesotans actually want government officials that want to set an ambitious agenda,” Thissen said. “If that is overreaching, being ambitious, that is what it is.”