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Minnesota lawmakers ready to get down to budget specifics

Minnesota Senate Majority Leader Tomm Bakk of Cook announces on Wednesday, April 13, 2016, that Senagte Democrats propose budget changes that closely mirror those sought by Gov. Mark Dayton. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

ST. PAUL — Minnesota legislators are ready to put specific numbers to their budget plans, which so far mostly have been generic rhetoric.

Senate Democrats Wednesday released their budget-change proposals, adding about $800 million to the state budget, a figure aligning much closer to Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton's plan than one issued last week by Republicans who control the House.

Democrats keep their proposed new gasoline tax on their wish list, freeing up much of the projected $900 million budget surplus for other spending. Republicans, on the other hand, want to split the surplus between tax cuts and new transportation spending, while taking money from existing programs to fund any new programs.

The Senate plan, like last week's GOP proposal, lacks specifics.

The biggest Democratic figure is $300 million that falls under the Tax Committee, which would be used for tax cuts as well as increasing money sent to local governments. Democrats, in particular, say that giving money to cities, counties and townships results in lower local property taxes.

The Democratic plan calls for spending all but $111 million of the state's projected $900 million budget surplus.

What to do with the $111 million remains to be decided, Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, said, although part of it likely will be used to fund public works projects.

Bakk said he and Sen. LeRoy Stumpf, D-Plummer, have not decided how big a public works bill to introduce, but the leader said it will be more than $1 billion. Dayton wants to spend $1.4 billion on projects like fixing state buildings.

House Republicans called for a $600 million public works bill, to be financed by the state selling bonds.

For the next week, House and Senate finance committees will find ways to fit their priorities into overall budget targets handed down by their leaders. They face an April 21 deadline to pass finance bills out of committees, setting the full House and Senate up for budget debates the following week.

After the House and Senate pass their bills, legislative leaders and Dayton could begin negotiating a final spending package in early May, ahead of the mandatory May 23 adjournment date.

Lawmakers and Dayton last year approved a $42 billion, two-year budget funded by state taxes. This year, they are proposing changes, but not writing a new budget.

The top new spending from the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party camp would be $91 million for programs to ease racial financial inequities. Dayton calls for $100 million from the surplus for equity, while House Republicans say they would move an unspecified amount of money from other programs.

The Senate Democrats' budget lists $85 million to expand broadband to areas not served, mostly in greater Minnesota. Dayton said he would spend $100 million, while Republicans propose $35 million.

"Our intention is to be very cautious," Senate Tax Chairman Rod Skoe, D-Clearbrook, said of making sure lawmakers do not overcommit spending for future budgets.

Bakk was critical of the House budget plan, saying it threatens long-term budget stability.

"We have only a few weeks left in this session," Bakk said. "I hope House Republicans soon realize that in order to get anything done this session, they will need to move closer to where the DFL Senate and Gov. Dayton are."

Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, said that he does not see how the Democratic plan can fit in tax cuts and new transportation spending. Still, he said that he remains optimistic, in part because he thinks every legislator wants to spend more on roads and bridges.

Sen. Katie Sieben, D-Cottage Grove, held out hope that the budget could fit in her proposal to give all Minnesota workers paid time off through an insurance-like plan funded by businesses and workers. The start-up costs could come out of the surplus, she said.

"We are hopeful we will be able to accomplish that this legislative session," Sieben said.

Bakk said that he is not concerned that the session's mandatory adjournment is a month and a week away.

"There is a lot of time to try to figure this out," Bakk said.