How do you bring two dead bills back to life? In Minnesota, it’s done with a conference committee, a couple of “vehicle” bills and a dash of legislative will.
That’s what was being attempted Friday in a joint House and Senate committee, part of an effort to work out a compromise on a package of public works projects — better known as a bonding bill — which failed to hit the 60 percent vote threshold needed to pass it off the House and Senate floors. Usually that would be the end of the bill, at least for a year, but in one of the strangest end-of-session negotiations in recent memory, anything seems to be possible.
Of course, nothing is also possible — and even likely. And DFL Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk and Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt will need herculean efforts to get a final deal to spend a $900 million budget surplus, pass the bonding bill and possibly a transportation funding package, too.
But they’re trying. The two leaders and representatives from Gov. Mark Dayton’s office were in and out of meetings late into the evening Thursday, though they emerged Friday with no concrete spending targets to close the 2016 session.
When they finally do come up with those targets, it will set off a flurry of activity in St. Paul. Staffers and legislators will try to pass everything before midnight Sunday. Though the constitutional deadline for adjournment is midnight Monday, lawmakers are prohibited from passing bills on the last day of a two-year cycle.
“Obviously we have some differences, and it’s that deadline at the end that forces people to come together,” Daudt said Thursday. “The more we talk, the closer we get, and we’ll just keep working, but I am optimistic.”
By Friday afternoon, leaders had set a $275 million target for a tax cut proposal but were still working on a plan for the budget, and chairs of House and Senate committees went in and out of hearings waiting for word from leaders.
Bakk said the priority was getting the tax and budget targets set, because they will take the longest to process. After that, a potential deal on bonding and transportation could fall together quickly, he said.
“The whole legislative process is about relationships,” said Bakk. “If leaders have good relationships and conference committee chairs have good relationships and they’re willing to have a give-and-take process and willing to maybe accept some things that make them uncomfortable, each willing to do that. But it starts with good relationships between the players, and I think we have that.”
Meanwhile, in the bonding committee, chairs of the Senate and House moved through articles of the two failed bills and highlighted areas they could agree until they got word from leadership.
Weeks after the Senate bonding bill failed by a single vote, House Republicans unveiled an $800 million bonding bill and put it up for a vote on the floor Thursday. But after a brief debate, the proposal failed on a 64-69 vote. It needed 81 votes to pass. Shortly after the bill failed, leaders announced plans to convene a conference committee.
There’s still a $700 million divide between the $1.5 billion Senate bonding bill and the proposal in the House.
“At this time we don’t have a target,” Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, told committee members and observers Friday. “We expect to get that sometime soon.”