ST. PAUL - The annual Minnesota Capitol deal-making dance began on a rainy Monday afternoon in Gov. Mark Dayton’s Summit Avenue mansion.
Inside the official residence, Dayton, Lt. Gov. Tina Smith, Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, the deputy and assistant Senate majority leaders, House Speaker Kurt Daudt and House Majority Leader Joyce Peppin, secluded themselves for 90 minutes to discuss how to end the session in a tidy and productive matter.
“Well,” Dayton said after their first closed-door meeting of the year, “We had a constructive conversation. We didn’t come to any agreement.”
“I’d describe it as constructive, not necessarily productive,” said Bakk, DFL-Cook.
“These first meetings are always a bit about getting on the same page,” added Daudt, R-Crown. “Obviously there hasn’t been much movement at this point.”
The private huddle was only a start to the work the Minnesota leaders want to get accomplished before May 23, the constitutionally mandated end of this year’s session. Democrats and Republicans will have to move quite a bit to complete their goals of approving millions of dollars worth of construction projects; a transportation package to provide $600 million per year for roads and bridges; cutting Minnesota taxes and spending money on key government programs.
While the leaders were tucked away in the governor’s mansion, in a stuffy basement hearing room at the State Office Building, fiscal analysts spent hours walking joint House-Senate committee members through dozens of spreadsheets containing the specifics of lawmakers’ spending plans. The Republican and Democratic proposals begin miles apart.
“This is a big bill with 600 pages it’s not going to get decided in the next 24 hours,” Rep. Jim Knoblach, R-St. Cloud, co-chair of the joint budget committee said.
Here is the current shape of the Capitol bargaining:
After their meeting, the leaders said they had decided they will start their work trying to come together on transportation funding.
“The good news is I think we have an agreement that we need about $600 million a year in order to accomplish that for the next 10 years,” Bakk said. “It’s still a piece from last session that we haven’t resolved.”
Last week, Senate DFLers conceded, a bit, on their push for a gas tax to fund that need. Instead of a 16-cent or higher tax on the cost of gasoline, they proposed a gas tax that would rise over three years to 12 cents a gallon. House Republicans, in turn, suggested they might be willing to accept a metro sales tax increase to fund mass transit, but asked for reform to the Metropolitan Council in exchange.
Now House and Senate negotiators are waiting for Bakk, Dayton and Daudt to tell them how much money they’ll have available to spend.
State Rep. Tim Kelly, R-Red Wing and the House’s transportation committee chair, said House-Senate negotiators would likely meet later this week once they’ve been given that spending target. At that point, the House might present a counter-offer on funding a transportation package.
“Transportation really does need to be considered in the context of what we’re going to do in a major tax bill, in a bonding bill, in a supplemental budget bill,” said Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis and the Senate’s transportation committee chair.
Every other year, lawmakers say their chief goal is crafting a package of spending on building projects to construct and repair water systems, college and university buildings and other statewide interests.
On Friday, the DFL-controlled Senate tried -- and failed -- to pass a construction bill that would fund $1.5 billion worth of projects, including St. Paul’s Dorothy Day Center, the Metro Regional Treatment Center in Anoka and the Fort Snelling visitor center.
Meanwhile, the House has yet to release a package of construction projects Republicans wish to pass. In early April, GOP leaders said they would approve a $600 million borrowing bill. Although DFL House members said at the time that a measure that size would be unlikely to win approval, Daudt said such a measure would pass the House with the super majority it needed.
‘We all know how this works and it’s called, ‘buying votes,’ you got to go to the other side of the aisle and you’ve got to put a project in that that they can’t vote against,” Daudt said last Thursday.
On Monday, he said he realized a $600 million bill would not win the votes needed.
“I’m just taking (House Minority Leader) Paul Thissen’s word for it that they’re not going to put up the votes for a $600 million bill,” Daudt said. Therefore, he said, the House was not planning to publicly release the $600-million measure lawmakers crafted.
DFLers said the House should let the public know what $600 million would fund.
“I challenge the House to come forward and put on the public docket what a $600 million bill would include and what it would not include,” Dayton said.
Dayton and the DFL-led Senate want to spend more than half the state’s $900 million surplus to bolster new and existing programs with a big focus on education and racial equity. House Republicans have focused nearly their entire new spending plan on transportation and tax cuts.
Knoblach said party leaders’ desire to settle a transportation bill first wouldn’t complicate work to draft a supplemental spending plan.
State Sen. Dick Cohen, a St. Paul DFLer and chair of the Senate Finance Committee, said the budget was one of four things lawmakers hoped to finish in the final two weeks. The specifics of bills for transportation, taxes and state-funded construction projects would all influence how much is left over for added spending, he said.
“It’s all part of the same thing,” Cohen said, expressing optimism all four would get done.
Sen. Bobby Joe Champion, DFL-Minneapolis, did not share that optimism when asked whether the Legislature would make progress on his top priority, legislation to close help the state’s economic and academic racial disparities. Lawmakers have debated new spending and policy changes to address these gaps, but have been unable to reach a consensus.
“I’m not confident because of how far we have gotten into the session,” Champion said regarding the chances a meaningful equity bill would win approval. “To be May and so many important issues are up in the air causes me concern.”
David Montgomery of the Pioneer Press, a Forum News Service media partner, contributed to this report.