Lawmakers finish session, now wait for Dayton’s verdict

House members gather as they wait for roll call to be completed during Day 3 of the special session Thursday, May 25, 2017 in St. Paul, Minn. Jim Mone | AP
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Minnesota lawmakers left for home Friday after a four day of special session to approve the final parts of a new $46 billion state budget, which would increase spending in some areas and provide targeted tax cuts.

That package is headed to Gov. Mark Dayton, who is facing considerable pressure to say no to elements of it.

“There’s no question that it was a grind, but we’re happy to be finished,” said House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Zimmerman. “I’ve very often said that I always think that things should happen more quickly than they do, but it’s OK. We’re happy to get it done and I think it’s a budget Minnesotans can be proud of.”

After failing to get the job done during a regular session that concluded Monday, the plan was to stay one more day. But difficulty nailing down details stretched out the Legislature’s stay. Rank-and-file lawmakers endured hours of breaks while negotiations occurred in private.

One lawmaker, Rep. Bob Loonan, R-Shakopee, pulled out his bagpipes after 1 a.m. Friday to serenade exhausted colleagues, staff and lobbyists waiting for the final few votes. When the time finally came to adjourn around 2:45 a.m. for the House and 3:30 a.m. in the Senate, sleep-deprived legislators made a dash for the door.

“The sooner the better,” said Rep. Melissa Hortman of Brooklyn Park, the DFL House minority leader.

Over five months there were plenty of partisan clashes but also some notable legislative accomplishments.

The Legislature discarded a decades-old ban on Sunday liquor store sales, used nearly $900 million to prop up a wobbly individual health insurance market and brought state drivers’ licenses up to a federal standard needed to prevent travel hassles.

The budget proved to be a heavy lift even with a projected $1.65 billion surplus.

A plan shaped during negotiations between Republican majorities and Dayton’s administration would split up that pot in several ways:

— There’s a $650 million tax cut — benefitting businesses, farmers, student loan debtors and Social Security recipients. The tax cut would grow in future years, which alarms some DFL lawmakers.

— Schools are in line for a minimum of $120 more per student in each of the next two years. Dayton’s push for new preschool funding resulted in $50 million for a special readiness program.

— A roads construction funding plan that proponents hail as the largest ever without a bump in the gas tax or other auto fees would plow $300 million into projects the next two years. Critics say the money could easily disappear if a budget crunch puts those dollars back into competition with schools, health care and other priorities. Another $70 million is allotted to mass transit.

— There is money to begin paying debt on nearly $1 billion worth of public construction projects, from wastewater plant upgrades to repairs on college campuses. Despite its large price tag, the bonding bill passed with only about a dozen dissenting votes in total.

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, said he expects Dayton to sign off on the bills coming his way.

“We talked through each bill all the way through and worked through every issue. Not that we agreed with every issue, but we worked through every issue. We tried not to send any surprises,” he said. “We wanted the governor to know exactly what he was going to be looking at. So, I think he’ll sign all the bills or almost all the bills.”

But Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said he’ll urge a tax bill veto.

“I think it’s way too big,” he said after the Senate adjourned. “We’re going to jeopardize the fiscal stability of our state budget.”

Hortman was also critical of what she saw as misplaced priorities.

“Minnesota’s working families are going to see higher tuition, they’re going to see underfunded local schools,” she said.

Protesters from labor and other progressive groups fill the rotunda of the state Capitol in St. Paul, Minn., on Wednesday, May 24, 2017, to demand that Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton veto the bills that passed before the Minnesota Legislature’s special session bogged down earlier in the day. Steve Karnowski | AP

Several left-leaning groups want the DFL governor to block parts of the budget.

They see flaws in a spending bill encompassing environmental regulation, are upset over a clampdown on drivers’ licenses for immigrants and are railing against changes to teacher licensure and seniority protections.

Denise Specht, president of the Education Minnesota teachers union, joined a rally Thursday where those and other grievances were aired.

“There are plenty of poison pills in the bills being discussed today,” she said. “It’s time for a reset.”

Another union head, Eliot Seide of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, urged a session reboot.

“We are grateful Gov. Dayton has plenty of ink in his veto pen, and politicians better know one thing: We are watching and we will hold them accountable for cuts that hurt working people,” Siede said.

One change Seide’s union was concerned with was removed from a budget bill. It would have altered the contract ratification process in a way that the union thought would lead to legislative meddling.

There was ample drama in the last day. Two Republican senators in the one-vote majority caucus were absent, meaning their party had to rely on Democrats to get bills passed. That led to several late changes in bills.

Some significant revisions to a $14 billion health and human services bill kept that plan in limbo until the very end. Republicans made some final post-midnight concessions, which Sen. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, said were needed to satisfy Dayton.

“It is my belief this bill is something the governor could support. I heard his voice just a few minutes ago,” Abeler said just before the 35-27 vote where three DFLers helped get the bill though. “I’m glad he’s still up watching our work.”

Dayton might have been keeping tabs, but he has been out of public sight since Monday night. The governor has been meeting privately with top legislators to work through late snags.

He said via press release that he would strike down a labor standards bill that would hinder wage and benefit ordinances adopted by cities. That bill also had some state employee contract provisions, pension changes and anti-wage theft measures Dayton wanted.

But Dayton hasn’t given any public pledge about signing or vetoing the budget bills, indicating he was awaiting the full picture before declaring his intention on any piece.

Daudt, the House speaker, said “we got it done with his help and support.”

He said he’s confident legislators “can go about their summer.”

Gazelka was mentally checking out from the Capitol as he held a predawn news conference.

“I’m going to sleep and then after that I’m going to go up north to the Brainerd Lakes area,” he said. “I hope to get out on a boat and just drift around.”