Capitol meltdown: Session ends in chaos

Speaker of the House Rep. Kurt Daudt speaks with DFL Senate Majority Leader Sen. Tom Bakk on the Senate floor during the final day of the session Sunday in St. Paul. Minnesota’s legislative session ended in chaos and with a pile of unfinished. Carlos Gonzalez | Star Tribune via AP
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    May 23, 2016

Minnesota lawmakers stumbled across the finish line for the 2016 session Sunday night without completing three of their top goals.

For the second session in a row, House and Senate leaders failed to reach a compromise on a long-range transportation funding plan. They also failed to pass a bonding bill and a plan for implementing the federal ID standards known as Real ID.

Transportation was billed as a priority for the short, election-year session. But House Republicans and Senate Democrats couldn’t get past their fundamental disagreements over where the money should come from and whether to include mass transit.

Instead, they put together a nearly $1 billion public works bonding bill in the closing hours of the session that was heavy on road and bridge projects.

In the chaotic closing minutes of the session, the House passed the compromise bill and sent it to the Senate. But Senate Democrats added money for light rail transit before passing the bill, and by that time the House had adjourned, meaning lawmakers missed their chance to send a bill to the governor.

“We had an agreement with the Senate that there wouldn’t be that amendment. At least that was our understanding,” said House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Zimmerman.

Daudt said they had an “unbelievably good” bonding bill that would have done a lot for transportation. He was clearly blaming Senate Democrats and their addition of light rail for the bill’s demise.

“It’s pretty obvious I’m not a supporter of Southwest Light Rail. But tonight it may look like Southwest Light Rail killed $700 million for roads and bridges across Minnesota,” he said.

But Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said he believed he had a different agreement with Daudt and the amendment was correcting an omission. Bakk placed the blame for the meltdown on House Republicans.

“There was plenty of time, and they could have then taken up the Senate’s amended version and sent it to the governor,” he said. “Why they made a decision to go home sine die is a mystery to me. But they have killed the bonding bill.”

Both leaders said they would be open to a special session to revisit the bonding bill. Gov. Mark Dayton will have to make that decision.

Minority Leader Rep. Paul Thissen speaks with Speaker of the House Rep. Kurt Daudt in the last hour of the final day of the legislative session Sunday in St. Paul. Carlos Gonzalez | Star Tribune via AP

Dayton will also have to decide whether to sign the two major bills that did pass on the final day: a tax bill and a bill to spend most of the state’s budget surplus.

The compromise on taxes, a leftover issue from last year, is about $260 million a year in assorted tax breaks. The bill includes a new credit for student loans, incentives for college savings, an expansion of credits for veterans and property tax relief for farmers and businesses. It also has tax breaks for the St. Paul soccer stadium and the 2018 Super Bowl.

House Taxes Commitee Chair Greg Davids, R-Preston, praised the bill.

“This is a historic day with what we’re doing here. This is wonderful reform for middle class Minnesotans,” he said.

Rep. Laurie Halverson, DFL- Eagan, criticized a provision in the bill that cuts taxes on tobacco products by $35 million. Halverson called it a step backward for the state’s anti-smoking efforts.

“Minnesota, in a bipartisan way, has worked to ensure that we are not raising a new generation addicted to tobacco,” she said. “Why we’re going to give these tax cuts to tobacco when we could be giving them to the people of Minnesota is beyond me.”

Dayton said he wouldn’t sign the tax bill unless he received an acceptable supplemental budget bill.

Lawmakers gave Dayton the $25 million he wanted for universal prekindergarten. But the $35 million for rural broadband and $35 million for racial equity initiatives are each about a third of what he asked for.

The governor did not make any public comments Sunday. He did however sign 28 smaller bills into law. The latest batch included measures for drug sentencing reform and a presidential primary.

In another late night move, legislative leaders threw in the towel on a Real ID implementation bill when they couldn’t resolve a disagreement over drivers licenses for undocumented immigrants. If the state fails to adopt the  federal Real ID security standards for drivers’ licenses and other forms of ID by 2018, Minnesotans may have trouble boarding commercial airliners.