Minnesota lawmakers hurry up and wait in finale

With Tim Pugmire

A dash to the Minnesota Legislature’s finish was on Sunday, with a midnight deadline to approve bills that would split up the state’s $900 million budget surplus and to decide on a long-range transportation fix.

The Legislature, known for pushing the weightiest decisions until the last minute, found itself hoping that everything would fall into place.

The House voted 123-10 on a tax-cut package, and a Senate vote was on tap for the evening. A spending bill containing money for broadband projects in rural Minnesota, prekindergarten programs and much more didn’t get nailed down until late in the morning, leaving lawyers little time to fine-tune the language.

The top Senate budget negotiator, St. Paul DFLer Dick Cohen, underscored the uncertainty as a House-Senate panel wrapped up.

“I’m hoping we’ll be able to get this done and get it passed,” he said.

A construction borrowing plan and a transportation funding plan were still incomplete and somewhat in doubt.

House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Zimmerman, said he’s confident they will “get something figured out” on both transportation and bonding. But Daudt didn’t want to get into specifics.

“Everybody’s working. I think everybody’s really passionate about it,” Daudt said. “I think there are differing opinions within all four caucus of what the right approach is. We’ll see what happens as we move throughout the day.”

The top Democrat in the Minnesota Senate said a transportation breakthrough was still possible, but he’s not willing to bet on it.

Senate Majority Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said he’s not interested in the latest House Republican proposal for $300 million in one-time spending from the budget surplus on road and bridge projects. Bakk said the proposal is not a long-term solution, and he’s concerned it could mislead voters.

“I’m just not interested, haven’t been interested in something that just allows people to hit the campaign trail and say ‘hey, we solved the state’s transportation infrastructure problems,’ when everybody when they push that green button and votes is going to know that that is not true,” Bakk said.

The Legislature’s actual adjournment can occur on Monday, but a quirk in the Constitution requires them to dispatch any bills to the governor a day before then.

The tax bill contains new credits for graduates with high student loan debt, incentives for college savings plans, offsets for taxes on veteran pensions and property tax relief for farmers. There are also property tax breaks to help construct a new Major League Soccer stadium as well as general tax exemptions on business property.

Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, said small businesses deserved a slice of the surplus pie. He said the owner of the tiny Sunrise Cafe in Melrose will no longer have to sell 6,400 pieces of homemade pie to make her $4,000 state property tax bill.

“The Sunrise Cafe will benefit from this as will every Sunrise Cafe in every corner of the state from Roseau County to Houston County,” Drazkowski said.

Democrats criticized other portions of the bill, including a $35 million tobacco products tax cut.

Rep. Laurie Halverson, DFL-Eagan, called it a step backwards in Minnesota’s anti-smoking push.

“We’ve worked really hard to make sure the generation that we’re raising is not going to be raised addicted to tobacco, is not going to be raised with a future that includes lung cancer, bladder cancer, stomach cancer, all cancers that caused by cigarettes,” she said.

The tax plan also lifts the state sales tax on events tied to the 2018 Super Bowl and provides a break for luxury stadium suites.

Gov. Mark Dayton has said he wouldn’t sign the tax bill unless he also receives an acceptable budget bill.

Emergency spending on Minnesota’s mental health and security treatment facilities was considered essential, but Dayton was also demanding $25 million for a prekindergarten pilot program for 4-year-olds. Other provisions of the negotiated bill was $35 million for broadband Internet service in places that lack reliable connections and money to shore up security at courthouses.

The transportation issue remained hung up over the source of money to fill an agreed upon $600 million per year road construction gap over the next decade. And Republicans were balking at the amount and destination of new mass transit spending sought by Democrats.

Lawmakers are also at a standstill over the size of a general borrowing bill for repairs and new construction of public facilities around the state and the mix of projects to include.

Once the Legislature adjourns, the campaign for control of the House and Senate officially commences. All 201 seats _ and the Senate DFL and House GOP majorities _ are at stake this November. Candidate filing runs through May 31.