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As legislative session enters final stretch, Dayton and Republican leaders get down to business on budget

Even as legislators and officials fight over who has been more “engaged,” real budget negotiations have begun between Dayton, House Speaker Kurt Daudt and Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka.

Gov. Mark Dayton agreed to meet lawmakers over the weekend to continue discussions.
MinnPost photo by Briana Bierschbach

The word on everyone’s lips at the Minnesota Capitol these days: “engagement.”

All week, Republican legislators have been using committee hearings to rail against the administration of Gov. Mark Dayton, claiming the state’s chief executive hadn’t been engaged in the every-other-year process of setting the state budget.

Dayton’s administration fired back with some stats. It cited 190 pages of letters the governor and his commissioners sent legislators about the budget, and 1,676 meetings cabinet members have had with legislators — including 538 appearances before committees.

“We’re looking forward to getting the governor to actually engage in the negotiation process,” Rep. Sarah Anderson, R-Plymouth, said during an exchange in a hearing on state government finances. “That hasn’t happened at all yet.”

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“I certainly don’t understand your comments about the governor because they are not based in reality,” responded Myron Frans, Dayton’s budget commissioner. “We don’t have the speaker and the majority leader here sitting and negotiating with us right now, so I’m assuming they’re not involved in the process? Of course I don’t assume that.”

The engagement debate is the latest sign that lawmakers have entered into the final stretch of the 2017 legislative session, with just over two weeks left on the calendar to resolve differences between Republican legislators and the governor on the state’s roughly $45 billion budget. 

By claiming now that one party or the other hasn’t been engaged, both sides are laying the groundwork to blame the other side if the whole thing falls apart. It’s happened before: a conflict between Dayton and a Republican-controlled Legislature led to a 20-day government shutdown in 2011.  

But even as legislators and commissioners went back on forth in public all week over who was more “engaged,” real budget negotiations began behind closed doors between Dayton, House Speaker Kurt Daudt and Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka. “It was a beginning,” Gazelka said Thursday, emerging from a “productive” meeting with Dayton and DFL minority leaders. 

Sticking points  

There are still major differences to work out by May 22, lawmakers’ constitutionally mandated deadline to adjourn the session.

Republicans want to cut $1.13 billion in taxes over the next two years and scale back state government budgets across the board. Dayton wants a smaller tax cut and more money spent on government services, like health care.

Then there’s a Republican education budget bill that defunds voluntary pre-school education, a signature proposal of Dayton’s that he wants to spend more money on over the next two years. 

Lawmakers are also butting heads over transportation, with Dayton opposing a Republican budget that blocks funding for future light rail projects and all-new provisions that change the authority of two prominent metropolitan-area governing boards. The Republican plan would revoke the governor’s ability to appoint members to the Metropolitan Council. Instead, the council would become a 27-member collective of local government officials. It also all but dissolves the Counties Transit Improvement Board, a five metro county joint powers agreement to raise a quarter-cent sales tax to pay for new transit projects in the region. Both changes appeared in a House and Senate transportation budget bill this week, but the issues hadn’t been previously heard in committees or voted on on the floor.

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, House Speaker Kurt Daudt
MinnPost photo by Briana Bierschbach
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka and House Speaker Kurt Daudt have been negotiating behind closed doors with Gov. Dayton.

They are among hundreds of policy provisions that are tucked into various Republican budget bills, measures that Dayton says could derail negotiations. “I have no intention of going through 609 policy provisions point by point,” he said. “If we did we’d be here for the next two months or longer. If we want to get this done we’ve got to have these be budget bills. We’ve got enough differences there we’ve got to work out. If we’re going to try and revamp state government according to the way they think it should be revamped, there’s an election next year for that.”

Republican leaders are pushing the governor to figure out the big-picture numbers first. The sticking point is the GOPs’ tax plan, which is using up more than $1 billion for cuts that Dayton would like to see spent on areas across the budget, from health care and education to the state’s colleges and universities. “Every target affects the other targets,” Daudt said. “If we spend a little more money in one area we have to reduce it in another area.” 

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Weeks to go, not much to show  

Things could be worse, of course. With two weeks left until adjournment, lawmakers and the governor have managed to make it to the negotiation table earlier than in sessions past.

During the last two sessions, final agreements on budget and policy issues were pushed until the final weekend of the session, when around-the-clock hearings and negotiations were required just to pass everything on time. That resulted in chaos both years, with Dayton calling lawmakers back for a special session in 2015 to re-pass several vetoed budget bills. In 2016, the final hours of session saw multiple proposals implode, including a $1 billion package of bonding and transportation projects.

This year, a longer timetable has allowed more public input on the proposals, but it’s also taken some of the pressure off lawmakers on finding an agreement, at least for now. After two rounds of negotiations on Wednesday and Thursday, top lawmakers emerged saying their conversations were productive, but with little movement on budget issues to show for it.

“At some point, we all need to sit around a table and roll up our sleeves and start working out the differences,” Daudt said. “The longer it takes for that to happen, the more difficult the job becomes, and the less the public is involved.” 

For his part, Dayton agreed to meet lawmakers over the weekend to continue discussions. He also seemed emboldened going into budget negotiations by a recent poll in the Star Tribune that showed him with an approval rating of 62 percent, an all-time high for him. “Off the record, this is the insanely popular Mark Dayton appearing before you,” he joked to reporters on Thursday. “If you could relay that message.”