After a morning of bluster, budget talks get quiet

With Catharine Richert, Tim Pugmire and Riham Feshir

Gov. Mark Dayton and legislative leaders ended their budget talks Tuesday night by saying little about their overall progress.

That’s a dramatic departure from the start of the day when Republicans criticized Dayton and Senate Democrats for slow walking the process. House Republicans also criticized Dayton for scheduling an organizing event for Hillary Clinton’s campaign for president instead of focusing on a budget deal that has to be reached by Monday.

But after meeting privately until 10:45 p.m. Tuesday, Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt, House Majority Leader Joyce Peppin and Rep. Jim Knoblach said nothing as they emerged from the governor’s residence.

DFL Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk left out a side door. Dayton did not talk to the press.

After his speech to Clinton supporters, Dayton told reporters that he and legislative leaders agreed to stay mum about the status of budget talks. He said, however, that he’s positive about the talks.

“There are no breakthroughs, there were no agreements or decisions, which I wouldn’t expect at this stage but there was a lot of listening.” Dayton said. “There was a lot of respectful talking, a lot of listening.  A lot of articulation of why we have our differences.”

Dayton and Senate Democrats are at odds with House Republicans over the best way to spend the $1.9 billion budget surplus. Democrats want to boost funding for schools and health care. Republicans are focused primarily on funding roads and bridges and a $2 billion tax cut.

Daudt also reiterated that his caucus will not support the DFL plan to raise the gas tax to pay for transportation projects.

He also appears to be softening his stance on scrapping MinnesotaCare, a subsidized health insurance program for the working poor. Democrats say the Republican plan to end MinnesotaCare and shift the 90,000 enrollees into MNsure is a nonstarter.

On Tuesday, Daudt said the tax on health care providers that pays for MinnesotaCare is scheduled to run out soon. He said lawmakers need to come up with a solution for when the funds dry up.

“We’re happy to talk about phasing them into MNsure but there’s nothing beyond the next biennium for funding for MinnesotaCare, so it is a real problem,” Daudt said. “We need to talk about that.”

Daudt and House Republicans also continue to push for a plan that funds transportation through the use of  surplus money, borrowing and dedicating sales taxes from auto parts, leased vehicles and rental cars.

They also want a tax bill that cuts $2 billion in taxes.

Bakk, DFL-Cook, said he doesn’t see a need to pass a transportation bill or a tax bill this year.

“I think they’re both dead. They’re not must-pass bills,” he said. “It’s Tuesday, we have to start focusing on the bills that have to pass.”

Legislators are working to finish their work by Monday’s deadline to adjourn. On top of the constitutional deadline to adjourn, lawmakers are also facing another deadline related to the ongoing renovation of the Capitol building.

Matt Massman, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Administration, says construction crews are scheduled to completely shut down the Capitol for the next phase of the $307 million Capitol renovation.

On Tuesday, he said crews are going to start work on renovating the House and Senate chambers.

Massman said a special session or any other delay would be “catastrophic” to their work schedule and run up work costs.

“What we need to get access to is the spaces that are occupied.” Massman said. “Those are some of the most significant spaces that have yet to be redone.”

Dayton and legislative leaders are scheduled to resume budget negotiations at 11:30 a.m. Wednesday.