Daily Digest: Clock ticking at Capitol

Good morning and welcome to Friday, which an old friend always told me was the best day of the week. Here’s the Digest.

1. Big issues still unresolved. Minnesota lawmakers head into a pressure-packed weekend, searching for consensus on plans to cut taxes, give schools financial breathing room, aid in the fight against opioid addiction and finance a raft of construction projects. They have until midnight Sunday to stitch it all together. Gov. Mark Dayton faces decisions on several controversial bills already headed his way. One would force the Public Utilities Commission to issue a permit for an Enbridge Energy replacement oil pipeline across northern Minnesota. Another elevates penalties for protesters convicted of blocking freeways, airport roads or transit lines. Many of the session’s outstanding items are contained in a sweeping budget measure that still hasn’t been finalized. Senate Finance Committee Chair Julie Rosen, R-Vernon Center, said she and her House counterpart were planning to meet soon with Dayton’s budget chief to start sorting through provisions that could sink the bill. “We’ll be going through the bill and looking at the 63 objections that the governor has,” Rosen said Thursday. “I haven’t seen the list.” (MPR News)

2. Dayton makes good on veto threat.  Surrounded by elementary school students Thursday morning, DFL Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed a Republican tax proposal, a move meant to keep the pressure on legislators in the final days of session to pass emergency funding for schools. Dayton said the Republican tax bill didn’t include $138 million he wants for school districts that are facing teacher layoffs, but he also has objections to specific provisions in the bill, which he said prioritizes tax breaks for corporations and the wealthy and doesn’t focus enough on middle class Minnesotans. “I’m vetoing the bill because they have not met the condition I have set, which is to include the emergency school aid. And also because it’s a bill that’s skewed toward the rich,” Dayton said at Bruce Vento Elementary School in St. Paul. “A family of four making $65,000 a year is about the median family income. They get $92 a year in tax breaks. A family making $250,000 would get three times that amount.” Lawmakers are working to pass a tax conformity proposal this session, after Congress overhauled the federal tax code late last year. Now federal and state tax codes don’t line up, and if lawmakers do nothing before next tax season, Minnesotans will be faced with more complicated tax forms and possibly tax increases. (MPR News)

3. Transportation funding measure is also in trouble. Republicans in the Minnesota House pressed forward on a transportation funding plan Thursday that faces an uncertain fate in the Senate. Unlike the tax bill that Dayton rejected, the transportation measure is a proposed constitutional amendment, which means Dayton has no say in whether it appears on the November ballot for voters to decide. The House voted 76-54 for the measure which asks voters to decide whether to take sales tax revenue from auto parts and repairs and spend it exclusively on roads and bridges. Rep. Paul Torkelson, R- Hanska, the chair of the House transportation committee, said the amendment would capture about $250 million a year when fully implemented after five years. “Everyone in this state depends on our infrastructure system of roads and bridges to get the goods and services they need to conduct their lives. We’ve hit this wall where we’re approaching a time when all we can do is maintain. We need to do more than that. We need to build, and that’s really what this is all about.” Republicans were hoping Democrats would help them pass the amendment in the Senate, but it looks like that’s not going to happen. (MPR News)

4. After hands-free fails, higher fines? Drivers caught texting or illegally using electronic devices while behind the wheel would pay substantially stiffer fines under a last-minute measure being floated at the State Capitol. Rep. Mark Uglem, R-Champlin, is putting forth a bill to raise the penalties for distracted drivers, after a measure that would have prohibited drivers from using handheld electronic devices failed to reach the floor. The new bill calling for fines of $175 for the first offense, $350 for the second offense and $700 for third and subsequent offenses is “the only way to get [the issue] to the floor,” Uglem said. Currently, fines for texting and driving are $50 for the first offense and $225 for subsequent offenses. Court costs make the actual total higher. Uglem was the chief author of the bill that would have made Minnesota the 17th state to require drivers to use only hands-free devices. He’s now amending that bill, drawing largely on a measure offered this session by Rep. Keith Franke, R-St. Paul Park, that called for the higher fines. Uglem said believes he has enough votes to get the bill passed, if it reaches the floor before the session ends on Monday. That, however, rests in the hands of House leadership. (Star Tribune)

5. Legislature moves to close DWI loophole. Lawmakers took a step closer to closing a set of DWI loopholes Wednesday after the House unanimously approved a plan to fully bring ATV riders and snowmobilers under the same laws that govern drivers of automobiles and trucks. The legislation was inspired by the death of Alan Geisenkoetter Jr., the 8-year-old boy who was killed this winter by an allegedly drunken snowmobiler while ice fishing with his family. Under current state law, operators of snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles are treated differently than drivers of cars and trucks when it comes to drunken driving. For example, if your driving privileges are revoked from a DWI in a car, you can still fire up the snow sled. Under the new proposal, such a driver would be prohibited from operating an ATV or snowmobile. (Pioneer Press)

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