Lawmakers return for countdown to final exit
ST. PAUL (AP) — Fresh off a 10-day break, Minnesota lawmakers dig in Monday for a final push to rack up accomplishments and election-year talking points before turning full attention to campaigning.
The high hopes of January’s session launch have given way to the hard realities that treasured proposals will be tossed aside or scaled back to suit a Capitol power structure where Republicans run the Legislature and a Democrat is in the governor’s office.
“At some point people need to make an assessment about what’s realistic here, this year,” said House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, a Minneapolis Democrat. “It’s not a budget year so we don’t have any legal obligations.”
Gov. Mark Dayton grasps that a borrow-to-build package, which he sees as vital to priming Minnesota’s construction sector, won’t be as robust as he proposed. And Republican leaders know they are unlikely get the scale of business tax breaks they suggested nor the changes to teacher tenure rules they desired.
But plenty remains in play. The sides could still agree on hundreds of millions of dollars in state-financed construction projects; tax changes that affect property owners and online shoppers; public subsidies toward a new Minnesota Vikings stadium; increases to hunting and fishing fees; and a costly, multi-year renovation to the aging state Capitol.
Lawmakers plan to bolt for home before May rolls in, a few weeks before the required adjournment. If it all seems ambitious, the Legislature has a history of shifting gears quickly when it needs to.
“We can move at the glacial pace or we can move at the NASCAR pace, and we’re getting to the NASCAR pace,” Republican House Speaker Kurt Zellers said in an interview last week.
Dayton and top GOP leaders met privately on Friday to begin sketching out an end-of-session deal. The governor was keeping his schedule mostly clear this week to continue the high-level talks and more pinpointed conversations with individual members.
Senate Majority Leader David Senjem, a Rochester Republican, said the tone of the early discussion leaves room for optimism. He said leaders should know soon whether there is a clear path forward or an insurmountable divide.
“If we continue to have good positive meetings we’ll continue to work,” Senjem said. “If we dead-end, things will come to a closure much faster.”
When the final gavel falls, it will mark the formal transition to the fall campaign for all 201 legislative seats. In November, Republicans will try to defend narrow majorities in the House and Senate, the first time since modern party designation that they’ve run both chambers at once. A flip of even one would give Democrats a 2-on-1 advantage heading into 2013.
So far the list of session accomplishments is relatively short. Republicans sacked a Dayton appointee to a regulatory agency and bypassed him to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot that would make photo IDs a requirement for voting. They ran into Dayton vetoes on proposals to curb lawsuits, to give homeowners greater ability to use deadly force on intruders and to dip into state reserves to repay school IOUS. They did come together on legislation to further streamline environmental permitting.
Last year, lawmakers fought through the summer on a state budget fix. This year, amid improved Minnesota’s finances, both Republicans and Democrats crafted agendas around measures to nudge the economic recovery along.
But they diverged on the strategy. Dayton and his Democratic allies argued for a hefty public works package — known as a bonding bill in government parlance — as their centerpiece. Republicans offered a menu of tax cuts, ranging from a phase out in a special property tax levy on businesses to upfront sales tax exemptions on major equipment purchases to tax credits for research and development.
Neither the House nor Senate has approved a bonding package yet. If they do, it is likely to be considerably smaller than Dayton’s $775 million proposal. But that’s part of the problem; a bonding bill requires three-fifths majorities to pass, meaning it has to be enticing enough to gain support from lawmakers in both parties.
Zellers said GOP members want to limit a package to projects of statewide significance and those related to asset upkeep, such as fixing leaky roofs on college campuses or erecting flood control measures in vulnerable areas.
Some Republicans, particularly newer members elected on messages of slimming government, aren’t eager to add to the state’s credit card and don’t consider a bonding bill vital.
“I don’t think it’s essential,” said freshman GOP Sen. Dave Thompson of Lakeville. “That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t support a modest, reasonable bonding bill to maintain and protect our infrastructure. This is about ‘How does the final product look?’”
Dayton said the ball is in the GOP’s court.
“They’re ultimately accountable for whether a bonding bill passes or not,” Dayton said, offering to build support among Democratic ranks. “I’ll do all I can to be helpful. But I need to know from them are they going to take the leadership necessary, especially with the majority caucuses, to get something we want through.”
The same goes for Dayton’s other priority — authorization of a $975 million Vikings stadium in downtown Minneapolis. The public’s contribution would come largely from an expansion of existing gambling operations in bars and restaurants.
The bill has seen its share of fits and starts, but the stage is set for some rapid-fire consideration. Committees in the House and Senate have hearings scheduled Monday and Tuesday, though even after that several more committee gauntlets remain before the plan reaches the floor for final votes.