If there are Seven Stages of a Budget Deal, we might be in the public-falling-out phase; whatever good will was generated between Minnesota’s top political leaders on a fishing boat over the weekend hasn’t translated into movement on a deal to bridge vast divides on the state’s budget.
Gov. Mark Dayton, Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk and Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt, returning to St. Paul from a joint fishing outing on Lake Vermillion Saturday, spent all day Monday in meetings trying to work out a deal to end the 2015 session by May 18, the deadline for adjournment. They shuttled back and forth between the state Capitol and the governor’s residence, the day culminating with a three-hour meeting at the residence that ended abruptly — and without any progress.
In that final meeting of the day, negotiators had “candid” discussions about proposed Republican funding cuts for health and human services, according to Dayton spokesman Linden Zakula. Republicans’ proposal to eliminate MinnesotaCare, a subsidized health care program for low-income Minnesotans, has been the biggest budgetary sticking point between the two parties in the last several days, but “no agreements” and “no concessions” were reached Monday evening, he said.
‘They are not serious about working out the differences’
But that’s not the only major issue causing an impasse: Negotiators are stuck on what to do with a Republican-backed package of $2 billion in tax cuts and a DFL proposal to increase the state’s gas tax to pay for a decade worth of transportation improvements. After meetings broke Monday evening, Daudt said Democrats were unwilling to move on most major budget items, especially their calls for new revenue for transportation.
“We are no further right now than we were at the beginning of the day,” Daudt said. “They are just not serious about working out the differences. They seem so set on the gas tax. When we talked about a gas tax, they made it seem like that’s the only solution to any problem.”
Daudt said a gas tax increase doesn’t have 68 votes in the House — the required number of votes for any bill to pass — and the proposal has been off the table for “at least two months.” “A gas tax isn’t passing today, tomorrow, next week or on July 15th,” Daudt said. “The public doesn’t support it, and it’s bad public policy.”
But Bakk says Republicans’ tax cuts and transportation funding are inextricably linked. Unlike the state budget, which lawmakers must balance by law before the start of the next fiscal year, the state’s transportation and tax systems will continue to operate as usual if nothing gets done this session. Earlier in the day, Bakk seemed increasingly frustrated that Republicans had refused to support Democrats’ transportation plan while still calling for major tax cuts.
“I’m willing to recognize the fact that we are not going to do a transportation bill, and they just need to recognize that the Senate’s not going to do a tax bill. I don’t want that to be the outcome, but the state badly needs an investment in our public infrastructure. Our roads and bridges are falling apart,” he said. “If they decide that they just can’t find a way to do that, I guess we’ll just have to wait for that until next year. I’m willing to do that, but they can’t expect that I’m going to give up on my number one priority and they still continue to get theirs, and it appears that theirs is a tax bill.”
Dayton reiterated that sentiment, following an afternoon meeting between DFL leaders at the residence. “If they really want a tax bill, they are going to have to go with what the Senate and I have proposed — along those lines — for transportation,” Dayton said. “They are not going to have it all their way, that’s for sure.”
Agreement on per-pupil spending
The governor and Senate Democrats did come to one agreement Monday afternoon: Both now want a 2 percent increase in the per-pupil education funding formula each of the next two years. That’s slightly higher than Dayton was calling for originally, and in addition to his push for some kind of deal on prekindergarten education this session, which he continues to call his “number one priority.”
The meetings came to a confusing end Monday night. Legislative leaders left the residence around 7:30 p.m. for dinner with the intention of coming back at 9 p.m. to continue talks. But while they were away, Daudt said he got word from the governor’s staff that the meetings would not continue until Dayton’s Education Commissioner, Brenda Cassellius, could join, which wouldn’t happen until Tuesday. Daudt said he was frustrated that the three leaders weren’t negotiating into the evening, with only one week to go before adjournment. But he and Dayton spoke during a late-night phone call to clear up the confusion and determined that talks would pick up Tuesday morning and afternoon.
Dayton casually proposed a scenario where each side gets its top priority in a final deal: He gets prekindergarten education, senators get a transportation bill and Republicans “could get a pretty good tax bill” and “we work the rest of it out,” he said.
“So far we haven’t seen that much sign of cooperation, but it’s only Monday,” Dayton said. “We got along fine when we were fishing.”