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With time running out, here’s what the Legislature could get done — and what it won’t — on bonding, transportation and taxes

Minnesota lawmakers have just a few more days to finish their work. They’re going to have a busy weekend. 

House Majority Leader Joyce Peppin, Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk and House Speaker Kurt Daudt walking to the Governor's Residence on Wednesday for a brief meeting with Gov. Mark Dayton.
MinnPost photo by Briana Bierschbach

There are only a handful of days left until Minnesota lawmakers are required to adjourn and go home, and still there’s no global deal in sight on major issues like transportation, bonding and tax cuts.

But now — at least — most of the pieces are there.

Earlier this week, House Republicans set budget target for tax cuts and unveiled their long-awaited proposal for a package of construction projects, two of the final pieces needed to start putting together a deal in time for the Legislature’s deadline to adjourn. While DFL Gov. Mark Dayton and top legislative leaders were in and out of meetings all week, rank-and-file legislators hunkered down in conference committees to try and move — piece-by-piece — major chunks of budget and tax bills they can actually agree on. 

Some of the movement was based on a logistical reality: Capitol staffers need time to process the hundreds of pages of paperwork that come along with any budget bill. And while lawmakers are technically set to adjourn at the end of Monday, they cannot pass bills on the final day of the two-year cycle. That means the deadline to get work done is actually Sunday night. 

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“The supplemental budget bill that left the Senate floor is 600 pages,” DFL Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk said Tuesday. “There’s an incredible amount of work there.”

Memories are still fresh of how things unfolded last year, when legislators struck a budget deal just three days before adjournment. That resulted in nonstop meetings and thousands of pages of budget bills being processed not long before the package went to a vote.

“We put the final deal together last year on Friday evening at about 5 o’clock, and then we executed that,” Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt said. “I don’t think anybody was enjoying the round-the-clock pace of that, but sometimes it takes a deadline to get people to move from their positions.” 

Bonding bill on the table

One of the biggest developments was the unveiling of the Republican bonding bill, the big package of construction projects the Legislature traditionally passes in even-numbered years — a proposal they initially put aside to work on other big issues this year, like the budget. But with time running short, Republicans took up an $800 million bonding bill in committee Wednesday, considerably larger than the $600 million bill they originally promised.

Their new bill is full of road and bridge projects, funding for ports, airports and railroad crossings. With some trunk highway bonds included, transportation projects make up the largest amount of spending in the bill, totaling $335 million. The bill also puts about $65 million into projects on University of Minnesota campuses, $72 million for Minnesota State Colleges and Universities, $33 million for Department of Natural Resources and $150 million into the state’s public facilities authority for wastewater infrastructure projects, a major priority for the governor. 

State Rep. Jean Wagenius
State Rep. Jean Wagenius

But Republicans need to court at least eight DFL votes in the House to hit the constitutional three-fifths majority threshold to pass any bonding bill off the floor, and members of the minority party were cool to the proposal in committee. Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, said the GOP bonding bill was deficient in the amount of funds needed in almost every category, including asset preservation and affordable housing. Other Democrats lamented that their districts didn’t get a single proposal included in the bill.

“Crumbling infrastructure does not stop crumbling because we pretend it’s not there,” Rep. Jean Wagenius, DFL-Minneapolis, said. 

Republicans defended their bill, especially Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, the chair of the Capital Investment Committee, who said he received more than $5 billion in bonding requests. “It’s not surprising that we have to leave many things out of the bill,” he said. “We can’t fund everything; it’s impossible.”

But it wasn’t clear Wednesday whether Democrats would help them pass the bill on Thursday, when it’s slated for a full floor vote. “Everyone knows that a bonding bill requires votes from Republicans and Democrats, yet House Republicans have refused to work with Democrats to craft a bill,” said DFL House Minority Leader Paul Thissen. “Instead, they have cobbled a bill together behind closed doors with just a few days left in the legislative session. Perhaps not surprisingly, the bill includes very few priorities for House DFL members and falls far short on needed statewide investments.”

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Taxes and budget intertwined

The other missing piece from House Republicans all session was a tax proposal. But at a press conference Tuesday, GOP leaders said they have set a target of $450 million in tax cuts. That’s far less than the $2 billion package the House pushed last year, an effort that failed amid other disagreements.

Rep. Greg Davids
State Rep. Greg Davids

Tax Committee Chairman Greg Davids, R-Preston, said that bill will include tax cuts for those on Social Security, those receiving veterans benefits, a tax credit for contributions to college savings plans and a dependent care tax credit. Davids also plans to include a signature priority of the governor: Tax credits for families with childcare costs.

“We are going from the young, to the very elderly and everyone in between,” Davids said. “It seems to me I have the easy job here.”

But Dayton made it clear that he won’t sign a tax bill this year without a budget bill that includes a list of must-haves he issued to leaders this week. They include: 

  • $100 million in for broadband infrastructure
  • $100 million for racial equity proposals
  • $25 million for a pilot preschool proposal
  • $21 million for the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system
  • $19 million for the Department of Human Services
  • $13 million for the Department of Corrections
  • $11 million for the University of Minnesota medical school
  • $6 million for pensions for judges

“I reiterated that I would not sign a tax bill without a supplemental budget bill that I find acceptable,” Dayton said after a brief, 15 minute meeting of leaders broke on Wednesday. “It’s not about getting what I want it’s about getting what Minnesota needs. I’ll stand on that.” 

Transportation talks break down

Earlier this week, it seemed like there might be a breakthrough after more than year of debate on the transportation funding issue. Dayton came out with two $600 million plans to fund transportation Monday morning, including one that left out the gas tax and paid for roads with $200 million from the state’s general fund and another $400 million through increased fees on vehicle registration tabs.

Republicans countered with an offer that scaled back the license tab increase to $100 million, and filled in the rest with $300 million from the general fund and $200 million in trunk highway bonds. 

But discussions broke down Tuesday evening, with Dayton pushing back on the amount of trunk highway bonds and general fund money included in the Republican transportation plan. By Wednesday, Bakk said he didn’t see transportation “in play” anymore, after House Republicans took any funding for transit off the table as part of the transportation discussion.

“He wanted to leave transit for another day, kind of referring to next year, let’s talk about transit next year,” Bakk said. “I’ve consistently said any kind of transportation proposal has to include transit. So if the Speaker has taken transit off the table and wants to put it on the side and talk about next year, there’s not a path to get a transportation bill this year. If he’s willing to reconsider that, we are certainly willing to talk about that.”