Legislature dashes to session end with lots to do

The Minnesota Capitol remained lit at 1 a.m. Monday as lawmakers pressed toward the mandatory end of the 2017 session. An incomplete budget stood between them and the finish line. Brian Bakst | MPR News
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The final day of the Minnesota Legislature’s 2017 session arrived Monday with plenty of question marks, including whether lawmakers could pass a new two-year state budget on time and exactly what’s in it.

Under the constitution, the session must end by midnight. But pieces of the roughly $46 billion budget plan still were works in progress, meaning the race to the finish could leave some bills behind. If that happens, lawmakers would have no choice but to return for a special session to complete the job.

“There are a few bumps, but each day, each moment is closer and closer and closer,” Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said as he emerged from a meeting in Gov. Mark Dayton’s office with 24 hours to go. “So we’re not giving up.”

Similar meetings had occurred throughout the weekend to work through sticking points one-by-one. The part of the budget covering health and welfare programs for the poor proved the toughest to tame, with Republicans aiming to reel back spending and Dayton looking for ways to avoid rollbacks in those services.

Sunday saw lawmakers pass three smaller budget bills to Dayton: one for agriculture and housing programs, another dealing with outdoors and environment spending and a third covering higher education.

The DFL governor hasn’t said whether any of those – or the rest of the seven budget packages still left to adopt would be signed. But House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Zimmerman, expressed confidence they would be given that the governor’s administration was pre-clearing each.

“We don’t have one document to say we have an agreement on everything. But our understanding is they are agreeing to the bills as we’re passing them,” Daudt said. “We’re not passing them until they are agreeing.”

Three major pillars of the budget – the health bill, a public school education budget and a tax-cut package – hadn’t been finalized before lawmakers adjourned for the night to give legislators a chance to rest for the push to the end.

Since Friday, the Republicans in charge of the Legislature were assembling a $660 million tax-cut package. The bill contains an array of breaks – from easing property taxes on businesses and farmers to providing credits or exemptions for senior citizens on Social Security or college graduates with sizable loan debt.

But Republicans were forced to give on a big priority: a plan for tax credits to people and companies who donate to private school scholarships for low-income children.

Senate Taxes Committee Chairman Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes, said the proposal was dropped amid resistance from Dayton, who likened them to vouchers.

“There are a lot of kids out there where the schools are not working for them. We were just asking for a little choice or opportunity to succeed, but it was denied, rejected,” Chamberlain said.

He said he is proud of the tax cuts that are coming, but was still bothered that the final bill was scaled back so much from a $1.1 billion proposal vetoed last week

“It certainly is not as good as we would like but because they are spending everything else,” Chamberlain said. “Citizens gave up 40 percent of the tax relief back for the state to spend it under their control and other desires.”

The tax cuts will come out of a projected $1.5 billion budget surplus.

Democrats argued the tax cut was still crowding out other priorities. One they cited was higher education.

The $3.3 billion funding plan for colleges aims to freeze tuition and make it harder to hike student fees. It would increase the amount the state spends on higher education by $200 million over the next two years, but comes up short of what the two public college systems said they need to make advances and keep costs low.

The University of Minnesota system would get about half of what the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system gains in new dollars — $54 million for the U of M to $106 million for MnSCU. The rest would be for other state-administered financial aid programs.

Sen. Jason Isaacson, DFL-Shoreview, called the bill “shameless.” He said the plan would force the University of Minnesota to drive up student costs to avoid harming academic and research programs.

“This bill is punitive. I don’t care what anybody says. This is a punitive bill, and it is unacceptable,” Isaacson said. “And I will say it to the governor, and I will say it to the majority leader and I will say it to the speaker. And I will say it to any Minnesotan that will listen.”

He criticized Republicans for trying to handicap the school systems with tuition caps, which he said is campaign brochure materials but “ties their hands behind their back”

MnSCU could raise tuition by one percent next year and have it frozen at that level the year after. The U of M would be urged to keep tuition flat, but lawmakers can’t require it given the school’s constitutional autonomy.

House Higher Education Committee Chairman Bud Nornes, R-Fergus Falls, defended the way dollars were divvied up, including the decision to put far more into MnSCU than the U of M.

“They aren’t equal. The number of students, the number of campuses, the job we ask them to do is different,” Nornes said. “That all factors into this. It has nothing to do with the quality. It is the cost of doing business.”

The environment and natural resources bill was ratified after two big disputes were defused.

Lawmakers decided rules designed to curb fertilizer runoff into Minnesota lakes, rivers and streams would remain in place. They reached a compromise that gives some farmers a compliance grace period.

It provides a waiver until July 2018 for landowners who would otherwise have trouble meeting a November deadline for having the vegetation setbacks.

Rep. Dan Fabian, R-Roseau, said some farmers will need the extra time to add the natural vegetation setbacks meant to act as buffers between farm fields and waterways.

“If you’ve still got your corn planted next November 1st, you’re not going to have your buffers in place,” he said. “What this does is allow you to be deemed as out of compliance. It allows you just that extra time to get your stuff put in place.”

Republicans had pushed all year for a delay in enforcement, but Dayton threatened to veto any bill that weakened his signature water quality initiative passed two years ago.

The bill also raises fees on people who hunt, fish, ride ATVs or snowmobiles or just visit a Minnesota state park. The fee increases were sought by the Department of Natural Resources as a way to keep its game and fish fund, parks accounts and other programs afloat.

Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, said outdoors enthusiasts demanded the fee increases to protect habitat and services dear to them. He defended the inclusion of the hikes in the new state budget.

“We have tremendous jewels that need to be funded properly,” he said of parks.

Ingebrigtsen added of the other recreational cost hikes, “It is a fee. If you want to hunt and fish, you pay the fee. If you don’t want to, you don’t have to.”

Resident angling fees rise by $3 each, deer hunting licenses increase by $4 and state park entrance permits go up by $2 for a daily pass and $10 for an annual pass.

Still unclear was how elementary or secondary schools would make out in their hunt for decent increases in the annual per-pupil formula. And Dayton’s push for universal preschool funding for four-year-olds was also a sore point being worked out during high-level negotiations.

Questions also surrounded the composition of a long-term transportation plan for road construction and mass transit as well as a general public works borrowing plan known as the bonding bill.

Meanwhile, the Republican drive to bar cities and counties from setting their own minimum wages or benefit requirements seemed to be losing some steam.

It was kept separate from a jobs and economic development funding bill amid fears it would provoke a Dayton veto. The so-called pre-emption plan would face a near-certain veto if sent as a standalone measure.

Gazelka, R-Nisswa, said Sunday his side hadn’t given up the effort.

“We’re not going to give up on pre-emption and the governor does not want pre-emption,” he said. “It’s one of those immovable objects that we’re just going to have to figure out.”

Dayton stayed out of sight Sunday, except for a morning television interview in which he expressed hope for an on-time finish and a deal all sides could live with.

If lawmakers don’t get done by midnight, it would be up to Dayton to decide when they would return for a special session. The next key deadline is July 1 when the current budget expires and a partial government shutdown would ensue.

If the Legislature manages to sprint to the finish, they would have a nice long break from the Capitol. The 2018 session won’t begin until Feb. 20.