It’s the little things: the smiles from Minnesota’s top political leaders as they walk in and out of the governor’s residence in St. Paul, a double thumbs-up from a state lawmaker as he exits a meeting, brief glimpses of negotiators sharing lighthearted conversation in the foyer.
It’s not much, but it’s all reporters got at the end of three full days of negotiations between tight-lipped state leaders as they try to close a deal on the state’s two-year, $40 billion budget and figure out how to spend a nearly $2 billion budget surplus.
Time is running short. DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk and Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt have just a few days to close a deal, process all the paperwork, move budget bills through committees and put them up for votes on the House and Senate floors.
But they are making progress, leaders say. That was evident Wednesday as a parade of key legislators, commissioners and fiscal staffers shuttled in and out of the Governor’s Residence (that’s where negotiations have taken place as the Capitol undergoes restoration). Meetings started around noon and stretched on until 10:30 p.m., with plans to pick up again Thursday morning.
The mood was lighter Wednesday at the residence than it had been earlier in the week, when negotiations ended abruptly Monday evening. Feelings were still sour on Tuesday as Daudt entered the residence, saying Dayton wouldn’t be “stupid” enough to go to a scheduled fundraiser for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign later that evening. Dayton did take a break in negotiations to attend, but after the comment, Daudt and Bakk stopped talking to the throng of reporters staked out outside the residence all week.
They still have big issues to sort through, however, including what to do with a DFL plan to raise gas taxes and other fees to pay for transportation projects for the next decade. Republicans say they are unwilling and unable to round up the votes for the proposal, but Democrats seem equally unenthused by a GOP plan to spend all the surplus and then some on $2 billion in tax cuts.
Some details have slowly emerged. Daudt seems to be moving away from a House GOP plan to eliminate MinnesotaCare, a health insurance program that covers 90,000 low-income people who make too much to qualify for Medicaid. The program’s main funding source will sunset in 2019. Before entering negotiations on Tuesday, Daudt said he could consider a gradual shift of MinnesotaCare enrollees on to MNsure, the state’s health insurance exchange, and Democrats have floated the idea of setting up a task force to look at the program’s future.
Meanwhile, back at the Capitol, Republicans in the Senate on Wednesday tried to move a bill that would keep the “lights on” — essentially allow state government to run in the event lawmakers don’t reach a deal by July 1, the start of the next fiscal year. The move failed on a party-line vote, but it raised the specter of possible overtime this session.
On the House floor, DFL Minority Leader Paul Thissen prodded Republican Majority Leader Joyce Peppin for details on the ongoing negotiations, particularly if Republicans had made any concessions to Democrats in control of the other branches of government.
Peppin mostly ignored the questions, but she did acknowledge that there has been “some movement.” “We have put some offers forward.”