Wearing only one shoe and balancing on crutches, Gov. Mark Dayton took a bold political stance Tuesday afternoon, accusing state senators in his own party of playing politics with Minnesotans’ tax dollars.
Surrounded by reporters and cameras in his first public appearance in weeks since undergoing a major hip surgery, Dayton had to strike a balance in his comments between short-term legislative negotiations and the longer-range impact on the November elections.
The Democratic governor took full advantage of his bully pulpit, calling out Democrats in control of the Senate for holding a time-sensitive package of tax cuts and repeals hostage to try and move a stalled legislative office building project forward.
“It’s just inexcusable,” Dayton told reporters at a hastily scheduled Capitol news conference. “I’m just very, very disappointed we are at this impasse at this stage and it has got to stop.”
Technically speaking, the tax bill and the Senate office building are separate legislative topics. Politically speaking, they are some of the major bargaining chips of the 2014 session, and all sides want to see action happen fast in an election year.
In a Tuesday meeting with leaders that was supposed to be about the tax bill, Dayton said the “sole” topic of conversation was moving the office building forward.
The House already has passed a $500 million tax package that repeals three business-to-business taxes passed last year and conforms the federal and state tax codes. Dayton and House members are pushing the Senate to pass a similar bill by March 19 to avoid confusion for the more than 1 million Minnesotans who file their tax returns sometime between April 1 and the April 15 deadline. Dayton and House Democrats are also up for re-election this fall.
“It’s our great interest to move this tax bill quickly, efficiently and get relief to nearly a million Minnesotans as rapidly as we can,” House Speaker Paul Thissen said.
The $90 million parking structure and Senate office building project would house state senators during the disruptive restoration of the Capitol building after the 2015 legislative session, but the project needs final approval from the House Rules Committee. Senators, who are not up for re-election until 2016, consider that project of immediate concern.
“We understand that’s not the House’s problem, but it’s a serious problem for how the Senate is going to function after the 2015 session,” Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk said of the building project, noting that the upper chamber will lose 38,000 square feet of space during the Capitol renovation. “To think that the Senate is going to give up all this space and just be kicked out in the street, that’s just not going to happen.”
Renewed tax push
Earlier on Tuesday, Bakk said they would not make the March 19 deadline to pass a tax bill but would aim to get a package passed by April 1. That’s when a warehousing and storage sales tax for businesses would kick in. But following Dayton’s press conference, Bakk said the Senate would try to pass a tax bill by Thursday, as long as Republicans agreed to suspend procedural rules to move the bill forward.
The Senate bill, as outlined by Taxes Chairman Rod Skoe, would be similar to the House bill but include a few “Senate improvements.”
The Senate’s $434 million proposal would repeal all three business-to-business taxes passed last year and conform state and federal tax code, similar to the House tax package. But Skoe said the Senate bill would include money for angel investor tax credits and would add an additional $150 million to the state’s rainy-day budget reserve fund.
Bakk and Skoe insisted they had been working “overtime” in the Senate to move a tax bill forward by the end of the month. “This is an extraordinary accomplishment this early in the year,” Bakk said.
“There has been no delay in the tax bill.”
Competing with the legislative negotiations, however, were political concerns about the November elections. Dayton lamented the fact that the Senate office building, which passed in the tax bill last session, had become a political football for Republicans.
He supports a “Minnesota modest” version of the current Senate building to solve space problems during the restoration, though he called previous and current designs of the building “overly lavish.”
”It’s very unfortunate that this has become a political issue, which it has with the Republicans salivating at every opportunity to try to ram this down House members’ throats, and my throat, too,” Dayton said. “It just makes sense for every other reason other than the fact that there’s an election in November.”
But Tuesday, Republicans were talking mostly about what they’ve branded the Democrats’ “mid-session meltdown.”
“It is completely unnecessary, and that’s what’s holding Minnesota taxpayers hostage,” Assistant Minority Leader Kelby Woodard, R-Belle Plaine, said of the impasse. “We ask the governor to lead, we ask the speaker of the House to lead and the majority leader — all members of the same party — to sit down and let’s get this money back to Minnesotans.”
Bakk said he asked Thissen to take up the building and pass it out of the House Rules Committee on Thursday, but House Democrats say they’ve asked the Department of Administration to look for any potential cost-savings with the building project.
House Democrats also still want to see the state’s $6.15 minimum wage increased to $9.50 and indexed to inflation this session, another point of contention with the Senate, but all sides said the minimum wage bill was not part of Tuesday’s discussions.
“It may well be that a new building is the best course, it may be the most efficient, most effective path for us to go forward, but until I get the information back from the administration that shows us those costs, and we are informed, I can’t make that commitment,” House Majority Leader and Rules Committee Chairwoman Erin Murphy said.
Bakk thinks the fact that it’s an election year has sped up the intense negotiations over high-profile issues. But for the most part, he says, disagreements between the House and the Senate are fairly customary.
“We have a tremendous system of government that is set up to be very difficult to get things done. That was the whole thought of the bicameral system, to try and force compromise,” Bakk said. “It is not unusual for the House and Senate to be in different places, I would argue that our system is designed to be that way.”
MinnPost staff writer James Nord contributed reporting to this story.