Legislature misses deadline; special session begins

Laptops, papers and empty mugs fill the desks of the Minnesota House as the representatives filter back in on the last day of the 2017 Legislative Session on Monday, May 22, 2017 in St. Paul, Minn. Evan Frost | MPR News
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Minnesota lawmakers missed a deadline for completing their year’s work and transitioned straight into a special session Tuesday to complete work on a $46 billion two-year budget.

The twist came as Republican legislative leaders and DFL Gov. Mark Dayton announced they had reached a tentative agreement on the budget that they didn’t have enough time to pass Monday.

Dayton called lawmakers back into session at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday with the understanding that they would pass their remaining budget bills later Tuesday and adjourn by 7 a.m. Wednesday.

The remaining bills include measures funding schools and health and human services programs. They also need to pass funding for state government agencies. In addition, they plan to pass a public works construction bill, a $660 million package of tax cuts, and a transportation funding measure. Dayton said he won $50 million for a preschool initiative that still falls short of what he had hoped to accomplish.

“Obviously there are very real differences so there is a lot of give and take, people giving up what the want and accepting what they don’t want,” Dayton said.

Dayton and Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka shared a firm handshake and back pat as they departed their joint news conference.

“It’s how politics should work in Minnesota; it worked extremely well. It wasn’t easy. We all knew we had to give up something, which is always what happens,” Gazelka, R-Nisswa, said. “And then you get something. But in the end when that happens, Minnesota wins.”

There are still major details to work out, which could produce some snags.

“Potentially,” House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Zimmerman, said when asked if it could still unravel. “But I’ll tell you I don’t think it’s likely.”

Some veteran lawmakers were predicting that a 7 a.m. finish was ambitious and thought a special session could stretch on a bit longer. They said the unsettled points, including how to shape massive budgets for education and health programs, were sure to produce disputes that will be up to the top leaders to resolve on the fly.

Republican legislative leaders said they would also pass a measure to prevent cities from enacting their own sick leave and minimum wage requirements for businesses, but Dayton promised to veto that bill.

The special session announcement cleared a path for the Legislature to complete work on a new state budget that began in January, when lawmakers started the session with a projected $1.65 billion budget surplus to divide.

Republicans in control of both the House and Senate had pushed to use most of the surplus for tax cuts, while DFLer Dayton argued that most of the money should be used for education and health care. That ongoing argument led to the standoff that carried the session into overtime, with Dayton vetoing one round of bills and serious negotiations finally starting only on the last weekend of the regular session.

For lawmakers who were not negotiating behind closed doors, the work load on the final day of the regular session was unusually light.

The House and Senate debated and passed a compromise funding measure for public safety. It spends about $83 million more than the version Dayton vetoed last week and comes closer to the level of funding that both the governor and chief justice requested for the judicial branch.

But most of the debate was about a single policy provision in the bill: a rulemaking limitation for the Department of Public Safety to prevent any future issuing of drivers’ licenses to unauthorized immigrants.

Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL- St. Paul was among those raising objections.

“This bill doesn’t create a path for legal licenses. That door is already shut. This language not only shuts the door, it puts a padlock on it.”

Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, defended the provision. He said it only shifts the decision-making on the matter from the department to the Legislature.

“I’d like you to know that it’s not a prohibition. It simply takes the authority and puts it in our hands.”

The governor previously opposed the provision. But lawmakers from both parties said Dayton agreed to accept it in exchange for the removal of a provision to toughen penalties on freeway protesters.

Rep. Nick Zerwas, R-Elk River, the chief House sponsor of the protest bill, said he would try again next year.

“Obviously, I’m very frustrated with that turn of events and the bill not being included and getting done this year. But I remain committed to working to protect the rights of motorists on the freeways.”

Earlier in the day, lawmakers passed a $374 million jobs/commerce/energy budget bill.

Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, said he was proud of the compromise bill.

“I think it’s geographically balanced. It’s fiscally prudent. It creates jobs.”

Rep. Tim Mahoney, DFL- St. Paul, said the bill was an improvement over the previous vetoed version, but it still underfunds and undercuts some programs. Mahoney said he thinks this bills also deserves a veto.

“You started out beating us up with a sledge hammer. You moved to a two pound maul, to a roofing hammer. Now you’re just beating us with a stick.”

Democrats tried unsuccessfully to amend the bill with provision on internet data privacy that was stripped from an earlier version of the bill. There were also complaints about its prohibition on local government enacting bans on plastic bags.

MPR News reporters Tim Pugmire and Mike Mulcahy contributed