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Funding for Southwest LRT killed the special session; expect to hear a lot about Southwest LRT this fall

House Speaker Kurt Daudt said he couldn’t support funding for the transit project given its unpopularity around the state.

Speaker Kurt Daudt: “It’s really unfortunate that all of the good things that we’ve been working and all of the agreement and compromise that was made is being cast aside because metro area Democrats aren’t getting Southwest Light Rail.”
Metropolitan Council

The uncertainty could have gone on indefinitely, but Mark Dayton didn’t see the point.

On Thursday, after three months of sporadic meetings and dueling press conferences with legislative leaders, the DFL governor put an end to the possibility that he’ll call legislators back for a one-day special session to resolve outstanding issues of the 2016 session. 

“I’ve concluded that after almost three months of futile efforts to reach an agreement to bring the Legislature back … I’m not going to call a special session,” Dayton told reporters, after a meeting with legislators that lasted less than 30 minutes. 

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It’s a dramatic turn from earlier this summer, when Dayton and Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt shared BLT sandwiches in a private meeting at the governor’s house and said they had put aside their differences. In doing so, they made way for a compromise on several issues, including a nearly $1 billion bonding bill that failed to pass in the final minutes of session, as well as a $260 million package of tax cuts that Dayton vetoed after session because it included a $100 million drafting error. Dayton and leaders even set a tentative timeframe for the special session, which they predicted would come together as quickly as the third week of August.

Instead, the special session died in the third week of August.

Whodunnit?

There seems to be no disagreement about what killed the session: funding for the controversial Southwest light rail transit line. 

In the end, despite other negotiating breakthroughs, Democrats could not convince Republicans to budge and allow five metro-area counties to raise the $135 million needed to pay the state’s share of the light rail line, which is needed to leverage about $900 million in federal funding.

Democratic Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk said he provided four different options to Republicans to come up with local funding to pay for the light rail project. They included allowing Hennepin County to kick in more money than it can now, as well as dissolving a regional transit board to allow five metro counties to levy and spend money for transit uses individually. In the end, Republicans didn’t agree to those options and offered “no alternative,” Bakk said.

“I think down the road, what are these metro highways going to look like 20 years from now, unless we find some alternatives to get people off of the highways?” Bakk said. “I think [Republicans are] lacking vision.”

Speaker Kurt Daudt
MinnPost photo by Briana Bierschbach
Speaker Kurt Daudt

Daudt said he tried to negotiate a special session for the outstanding bonding bill and tax bill, but Democrats said they wouldn’t make a deal without some resolution on light rail funding. Daudt said they couldn’t agree to anything to support the project given its unpopularity around the state and several outstanding lawsuits over its proposed route.

“It’s really unfortunate that all of the good things that we’ve been working and all of the agreement and compromise that was made is being cast aside because metro area Democrats aren’t getting Southwest Light Rail,” Daudt said.

When it comes to the future of the SWLRT, Dayton said he’s going “back to the drawing board.” He’s meeting with Met Council Chairman Adam Duininck on Friday to look at their options. 

Daudt also used the phrase “back to the drawing board” with SWLRT, but he thinks the project, as it stands now, is “dead.”

“This is probably the end of Southwest light rail,” Daudt said. “It doesn’t mean it has to be the end forever, but it means that we should actually go back to the drawing board, start over, go through a new route analysis.”

The election and beyond

The end of special session talks means legislators can now pivot full-time to this fall’s election, when all 201 state House and Senate seats are on the ballot. Daudt said the failed special session will fall squarely on legislative Democrats. “I’m not the one walking away from the table right now,” Daudt said. “Democrats are walking away from the table today.”

Gov. Mark Dayton
Office of the Governor
Gov. Mark Dayton

DFL House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, who is hoping to reclaim the speakership this fall, said it was “a disappointing day for Minnesota.”

“We leave 2016 with no bonding bill, no tax bill and above all no comprehensive transportation solution,” he said in a statement. “A House DFL Majority will bring a robust bonding bill and middle class tax relief to the House floor for a vote in the first 30 days of the next legislative session.”

Dayton, who is not on the ballot this fall, didn’t want to make predictions about the election, but he was sure the election had something to do with the death of special session. “We are not asking for one state dollar going into the Southwest light rail project, it’s just all about the politics, about putting something on someone’s re-election campaign brochure saying we killed Southwest Light Rail and the metropolitan boondoggle dollars,” Dayton said.

Looking even further ahead, the 2017 session is going to feel a lot like the 2016 session.

Shortly after lawmakers convene in January, Dayton said he will introduce a bonding and tax proposal similar to the ones that failed this year. And he also wants to pick up the conversation around a long-term transportation-funding plan, which dominated the last two legislative years and ultimately ended in gridlock.