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A budget deal begins to take shape … and not much else

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk says the prolonged negotiations among the governor and legislative leaders means there will be little time to tackle transportation and taxes. 

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk: “Right now, it appears to me like there is a path to get all of the budget bills passed and sent to the governor by midnight on the 18th.”
MinnPost photo by Briana Bierschbach

For DFL Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, there is a path to pass a $40 billion-plus state budget on time this session — and little else.

Bakk, along with DFL Gov. Mark Dayton and Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt, signaled the first signs of progress toward a budget deal Thursday, jotting their signatures on a final spending target for higher education, and releasing a target for public safety and the courts. The three leaders, their staffers and commissioners from Dayton’s administration have spent all week holed up in the governor’s residence in St. Paul, trying to close a deal with enough time to pass all budget bills before the constitutional requirement to adjourn Monday.

The spending targets were the first signs of progress in days, and a relief for many of the 199 other legislators back at the state Capitol, who have been waiting for word on some kind of a deal to end session on time. “Right now, it appears to me like there is a path to get all of the budget bills passed and sent to the governor by midnight on the 18th,” said Bakk, who broke a days-long “cone of silence” around leadership to talk about the details of negotiations.

But the delay in setting budget targets leaves little time left to do anything else, he said, noting that two top priorities — a long-term transportation plan and gas tax hike for Democrats, and $2 billion in tax cuts for Republicans — hadn’t been discussed in days in order to focus on the budget. Budget bills are required to be balanced by law, but tax and transportation systems will continue to operate under current law if nothing changes.

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The big hurdle is one of logistics: It takes time to process the paperwork and print off bills before they can get a vote, Bakk said, and the legislative staff are going to have their hands full around-the-clock for the next few days just trying to finish the budget.

“Is there time to get a tax or transportation bill in the mix? Every hour that ticks by it gets that much harder,” Bakk said. “The revisor can mechanically only handle so much.”

He opened the door to a possible special session to deal with the two issues, noting it wouldn’t be unusual for a governor to call lawmakers back to break a tax-related gridlock, but there’s a big caveat: The Capitol restoration project. “Special session is going to be very difficult to accomplish, because with the construction schedule, it has the contractors starting to take the desks out of the [House] chamber on May 19,” Bakk said.

House Speaker Kurt Daudt
MinnPost photo by Briana Bierschbach
House Speaker Kurt Daudt

Daudt and other House Republican leaders repeatedly refused to comment on the budget negotiations throughout the day, except to say that progress was being made. Dayton didn’t make an appearance outside of a public event earlier in the day.

The higher ed and public safety budgets can now head into committee to work out final differences between the House and Senate before getting a floor vote. Senators want to keep policy provisions out of the discussions and just talk numbers, and here are the deals heading to legislative committees for final approval: 

  • Dayton and the two legislative leaders agreed to spend about $3.05 billion on higher education over the next two years, or $166 million more than was spent over the last biennium. That’s less than the Democrats wanted, but far more than Republicans originally proposed in their budget bills. Under the terms of the agreement, Dayton wins a push to pump $30 million into creating specialized research teams at the University of Minnesota medical school. But there’s not enough money to freeze tuition at the U, or on campuses across the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) system. “There will be tuition increases,” Bakk said. “There’s just not enough money to avoid them.”
  • Earlier in the day on the Senate floor, DFL Sen. Ron Latz said he was given a $2.1 billion target to spend on the judicial branch and public safety. That’s a $111 million increase from current spending, and comes with a stipulation that the judicial branch gets a 4 percent increase for judges and court staff each of the next two years, among other things.
  • The leaders said they were nearly finishing with budget targets in a few other areas, too, including agriculture and the energy and environment.

Leaders planned to pick up talks early Friday morning and focus on health and human services, where there’s still a big divide on whether to trim spending in the growing budget area, or spend more. The 450-plus page health and human services bill will also take the longest to process.

In typical Bakk fashion, the former union carpenter from the Iron Range compared the current status of a budget negotiations to fishing. “You get to a point up north where you either fish or cut bait,” he said. “But you gotta do something here.”