MN Legislature closes book on Dayton veto fight, approves funds

Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, left, and Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, spoke on the Senate floor in this 2015 photo. Jennifer Simonson | MPR News 2015
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Updated: 7:36 p.m. | Posted: 2:05 p.m.

The Legislature moved Thursday to end a protracted and bitter dispute over its own operating budget, quickly advancing a funding measure that restores money Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed last summer.

The House and Senate swiftly approved a two-page bill unlocking $130 million to pay for salaries, staff, rent and other costs needed to run the Legislature through mid-2019. Dayton had wiped out two years of funding for the House and Senate. 

“It’s the same amount of money,” said the bill’s cosponsor, Republican state Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer of Big Lake. “Nothing more, nothing less.”

Dayton plans to sign the bill on Monday, according to a tweet by his deputy chief of staff.

“We have a level of understanding that this was going to happen,” House Speaker Kurt Daudt said. “I’m glad that we’re moving forwarded and it will be good to put this behind us.”

One thing is not addressed by the bill: Money to pay the private lawyers the Legislature hired to challenge Dayton’s veto. The Minneapolis law firm has yet to submit an invoice, which would trigger a 30-day window for payment.

Lawmakers have been limping along on emergency funding after losing a court fight with Dayton over his line-item veto authority. He said the veto was a response to problems he had with other parts of the state’s two-year, $46 billion budget.

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, said getting the issue resolved in the session’s first week leaves the Legislature and Dayton with a clean slate from their legal skirmish.

“As much as possible,” he said, “I want to put that in the rear view mirror.”

Gazelka said it also alleviates worries of legislative employees who would be at risk of layoffs if the emergency funding runs dry.

“I look to them first and foremost,” Gazelka said. “They have real lives with mortgages and everything else.”

Though lawmakers will continue collecting a $14,000 annual raise — the Legislature’s new, $45,000 salary set by a voter-created panel took effect in July — the budget approved Thursday did not increase to account for that higher pay.

The bill was on course to pass the Republican-led House and Senate, with Democrats conceding it would go through. That doesn’t mean the minority party was happy with the result.

DFL lawmakers chafed at the bill being passed in a form where they couldn’t offer amendments. They had hoped to use it as a means to also ratify state employee contracts that have been hung up

In the House, a separate bill containing approval of contracts for some of the larger unions was brought up for a sudden vote. But Republicans moved to attach conditions that approval was contingent on union dues being made voluntary.

Democrats objected, saying the Legislature must accept or reject contracts only. Rep. Marion O’Neill, R-Maple Lake, held firm that lawmakers weren’t overstepping their authority.

We are not changing the contracts themselves,” O’Neill said. 

Rep. Leon Lillie, DFL-North St. Paul, was among those appealing for a straight-up approval by noting the importance of services state workers provide.

“Think about these snow plow drivers that will be out there over the weekend,” Lillie said. Later, he added, “Treat people how you want to be treated.”

In the end, the contracts bill was withdrawn before a final vote.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said he’s concerned that those employee contracts affecting thousands of unionized workers will remain in limbo deep into spring, as Republicans seek other legislative concessions in exchange.

“I really don’t want the public employees in Minnesota to be used as some kind of bargaining chip in the end of the negotiations of tax conformity or pre-emption or some other issue,” Bakk said. “Using the state employees as a bargaining chip that way is really unfair to our public employees.”

Kiffmeyer, chair of the Senate’s State Government Finance Committee, said she still has questions about whether the state worker raises of about two percent a year exceed the amount that agencies have to pay salaries. State employees can also earn merit and seniority bumps.

She said executive branch officials need to provide additional information to her committee — “publicly and on-the-record” — before a bill to ratify the contracts advances.

Bakk said the Legislature was looking out for itself first while forcing uncertainty for others.

“It doesn’t seem right to me that we give raises to the staff at the Legislature, raises to members of the Legislature and not act on the negotiated settlements for the 35,000 state employees,” he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.