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Minnesota tax cuts, budget advance; transportation, bonding going slow

ST. PAUL -- Bills cutting taxes and increasing spending looked on Saturday like they will pass the Minnesota Legislature as bills funding transportation and public works projects crawled toward a midnight Sunday deadline.

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With a table full of papers full of numbers nearby, Minnesota House and Senate negotiators discuss state spending Saturday, May 21, 2016, as the legislative session winds down for the year. (Forum News Service photos by Don Davis)

ST. PAUL -- Bills cutting taxes and increasing spending looked on Saturday like they will pass the Minnesota Legislature as bills funding transportation and public works projects crawled toward a midnight Sunday deadline.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said that legislation to change a $42 billion, two-year budget enacted last year means $167 million more spending funded by general tax dollars, but when transfers from other funds are taken into account the budget would increase more than $300 million.

Broadband high-speed Internet expansion would get $35 million in the next year, the same amount as efforts to reduce racial economic disparities. Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton asked for almost three times that amount for each issue, but Bakk said the governor will accept the lower amount because "he also thinks we have to get a bill to get out of town."

Dayton won one piece of funding he sought: $25 million for pre-kindergarten education.

A tax conference committee was expected on Sunday to approve its bill, which would chop Minnesotans' taxes nearly $260 million in the next year.

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However, two other major bills were less certain.

Ideas were exchanged on a transportation funding bill, but on Saturday night it was not clear if an agreement could be reached before the Sunday midnight deadline to pass bills.

"I would say we are at a 40 percent chance," Senate Transportation Chairman Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, said.

House Transportation Chairman Tim Kelly, R-Red Wing, said the chairmen offered ideas about how roads, bridges and transit could be funded. However, he said that House and Senate leaders had not signed off on the concepts.

"We will have to leave the big decisions up to our leadership," Kelly said.

Dibble and Kelly proposed similar transportation funding ideas.

The House concept called for $300 million a year coming from sales taxes collected on items related to transportation, such as auto parts; a $100 million license tab fee increase; and $200 million in borrowing for state highways. Another type of borrowing also is possible, in another bill.

The plan also would remove light rail funding from the state, turning over to Twin Cities counties and the Metropolitan Council, both of which would be given the chance to raise sales taxes. Kelly said that would save the state $750 million over 10 years.

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"The intent is to get the state out of building and operating rail," Kelly said.

Rep. Ron Erhardt, DFL-Edina, offered enthusiastic support to the plan. "I think we should whiz bang it through and get it to the governor as soon as possible."

"Synthesize and then whiz bang," Dibble suggested.

Dibble said that he and Kelly would try to get negotiators to agree on a specific plan, when "we will see how our respective caucuses feel about this."

"There is a lot of discussion we still have to have with our own caucuses and leadership," Kelly added.

Another issue also remained in question Saturday night: whether the Legislature can approve borrowing money for public works projects around the state.

Senate negotiators offered to slightly drop their $1.5 billion borrowing ask. The House started at $800 million and there were indications that the GOP could consider a $950 million measure.

On Saturday, after a 46-11 vote in the Senate, the Legislature finished work to approve a switch from presidential caucuses to primaries. Dayton has said he supports the change.

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Senators passed a bill 41-17 regulating release of police body camera video, and representatives were expected to follow suit.

The major late change in the bill removed a provision that would allow police officers to review the video before writing their reports. Overall, the bill restricts public release of video.

Legislators were also making progress on changing Minnesota’s driver's licenses to comply with federal Real ID requirements. Although Republicans and Democrats had clashed on when the state should usher in the licenses and whether this year’s legislation should ban future issuance of driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants, on Saturday they were close to finding an agreement.

While the state Constitution requires the Legislature to adjourn Monday, it also places the deadline for passing bills at Sunday midnight.

The St. Paul Pioneer Press, a Forum News Service media partner, contributed to this story.

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