On Tuesday, Minnesota lawmakers from across the state will travel to St. Paul to convene the 2016 Legislature, a session that is expected to be contentious from its first moments to the very last.
It’s not a major budgeting year, but the session poses plenty of other unusual challenges for lawmakers. To name a few: divided government; a Capitol in the midst of construction; a tight, 10-week timeframe to get business done; an election year with all 201 House and Senate seats on the ballot this fall; and a $900 million surplus.
So what are the issues to watch? How does the upcoming election change the dynamics in St. Paul? What must get done this year, if anything?
MinnPost surveyed more than a dozen staffers, lobbyists and legislators to get a better sense of those questions and the challenges lawmakers will face, distilling five common themes heading into the 2016 session:
Nothing has to get done
Last year, legislators had to pass a two-year, $41.5 billion budget in order to keep state government from shutting down. They managed to get it done – just barely – and left some money and big disagreements on the table to pick up again this year. Now that legislators are kicking off the 2016 session, it’s important to remember that they still don’t have to do any of it.
Sure, legislators want to get a deal on a long-term transportation-funding plan, and a tax cuts package that went nowhere last year. And yes, there’s a surplus that legislators can spend if they want. But they don’t have to. State government is funded for the rest of the biennium, and there are no penalties (like a shutdown) if they simply don’t do anything. That cash will just roll over to the next two-year budget. And since the tone of top lawmakers hasn’t changed much on transportation and taxes since they finished things up last June, some Capitol regulars are saying a repeat ending is entirely possible.
A lot hinges on the bonding bill
One thing that likely will get done is a bonding bill, the package of construction projects typically passed during even-numbed years in Minnesota. It’s a popular proposal among legislators because bonding bills scatter projects in individual districts around the state. They are especially popular in an election year, when legislators need to be able to tout their accomplishments on the campaign trail. One of the easiest ways to do that is to be able to point to cranes and construction workers on the job.
Legislators are expected to pass a bonding bill that’s somewhere between $800 million and $1 billion this year, but that’s not the important part to consider. Bonding bills require a three-fifths majority to pass in both chambers, meaning the minority caucuses have more say in that debate than in issues that need a simple majority. Given the higher bar of passage for bonding bills, they’re also often used as a way break gridlock and make deals on other issues. Remember, the 21-day government shutdown in 2011 was ended thanks to a $500 million bonding bill. Many expect the bonding bill will help move tricky issues along this year.
For many, election year > session
Many of the issues legislators want to pass this year might not make it under the intense pressure of an election year. All 201 seats in the state House and Senate are up for grabs only once every four years, and there’s a lot at stake this fall. DFL Gov. Mark Dayton would like to see Democrats maintain control of the Senate and win back the state House for his final two years in office. Republicans want to at least maintain their hold on the state House and win back the Senate, which they held during the 2011 and 2012 sessions. That means even more gridlock than last year — and plenty of campaign-tinged speeches delivered right from the House and Senate floors. (As one Capitol insider put it: “The session is more of a 10-week inconvenience for some of these legislators in tough districts. They want to get out door-knocking, and they don’t want to take tough votes.”)
Democrats need to play nice — with each other
Some of the most public rifts of the 2015 session were between members of the same party. Dayton and DFL Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk famously split over a move by senators to block pay raises for the governor’s Cabinet, and Bakk alienated a metro-heavy chunk of his own caucus after making deals with Republican Speaker of the House Kurt Daudt that rolled back some environmental protections. The result: Dayton had one of the least-successful sessions since he was elected in 2010, and Senate Democrats have been licking their wounds since tensions boiled over in June. Amid DFL dysfunction, Republicans managed to walk away from the 2015 session with no major victories, but no major losses either. That’s not nothing, especially since the party has no allies in state government. Staffers, lobbyists and rank-and-file legislators are watching to see if Democrats will work together this time around to get the most out of a particularly challenging session.
Expect to hear a lot about one-time spending
When it comes to spending that $900 million budget surplus, legislators are more interested in projects that require a quick influx of cash than something that needs ongoing funding. That’s because the February economic forecast shows a downturn in the economy in the years to come, and people like Dayton are worried about committing too much of the state’s resources when times are good and possibly incurring years of budget deficits when times go bad.
So, what kinds of projects will get more attention this year? Dayton has talked about pumping quick cash into things like broadband for outstate Minnesota, upgrades at the Minnesota Security Hospital in St. Peter and other one-time construction projects. Senate Democrats are also talking about one-time spending, including money for programs to help address racial disparities in Minnesota. Last year, House Republicans proposed $2 billion in tax cuts, many of them ongoing. This year, they’re expected to propose using some of the surplus on roads and bridges — a quick boost in transportation and construction spending.