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With no deal in sight, legislative Republicans decide to move budget bills without Dayton’s sign-off

Republicans said the move was necessary to get the bills through the cumbersome legislative process before they run up against their Monday deadline to adjourn the session.

Republicans said their move was necessary in order to start the budget bills through the cumbersome legislative process before a constitutional deadline to adjourn session at midnight on Monday.
MinnPost photo by Briana Bierschbach

There was a feeling of déjà vu around the Minnesota Capitol.

After repeated delays in negotiations, the GOP leaders of the state Legislature on Friday decided to move ahead with a two-year, $46 billion state budget plan without final sign-off from DFL Gov. Mark Dayton. The Republicans said it was necessary in order to move the budget bills through the cumbersome legislative process before a constitutional deadline to adjourn session at midnight on Monday.

It’s the second batch of budget bills Republicans have sent to Dayton this month without an agreement; the first round saw all the budget bills vetoed by the governor. It’s also a repeat of 2015, when legislative leaders sent the governor a budget without a final agreement. “It’s exactly where we were two years ago,” Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt said. “We have decided to set joint budget targets that we think represent real compromise with the governor. We have moved our positions pretty significantly.” 

The move assures a messy finish to the 2017 legislative session, with a hurried weekend of budget work ahead and potential vetoes forthcoming from the governor. During an appearance on Twin Cities PBS’ “Almanac” show on Friday night, Dayton did not promise to veto all of the budget bills sent his way, but he said he was “disappointed” Republicans went ahead without him on the budget after he left meetings this afternoon to attend a funeral. 

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“This is divided government, and they are already saying, ‘We are going to have the budget the way we want it,’” Dayton said.

GOP leaders have released new budget targets that include a $660 million tax cut proposal, which is lower than the more than $1 billion tax cut they originally wanted but more than what Dayton had proposed. They also want to spend about $467 million more on education over the next two years; $200 million on higher education; and $164 million for courts and public safety. The targets also include more than $250 million in reductions to health and human services spending. 

Progress was slow on a budget deal between the two sides all week. On Wednesday, Dayton offered a “halfway” proposal to split the $1.5 billion surplus. But the two sides disagreed about what actually constituted the halfway point of the surplus, throwing a wrench into the negotiations. Even after a secret meeting at the governor’s residence Thursday evening and hushed meetings throughout the day Friday, Republican leaders and the governor still weren’t able to reach a global agreement.

So Republicans decided to move forward without Dayton. “The Legislature has a job to do and it takes a few days,” Daudt said. “We’ve reached that point where we have to start that process.” 

In 2015, the last time legislators sent Dayton a plan without his sign-off, the governor ultimately vetoed three of the budget bills, leading to a one-day special session that was nearly derailed over disagreements about spending on the environment. Republicans said they don’t want that to happen this year, and plan to meet with Dayton over the weekend with the goal of drafting agreements he can sign. They have left $86 million unspent in their targets to accommodate ongoing negotiations.

“This does not mean we are walking away from the table with the governor,” Daudt said. “In fact, it’s the opposite. We hope to engage with the governor over the course of the next three days and get agreement on all of these bills.” 

But Dayton was still concerned, not just about the numbers but about hundreds of policy measures that were tucked into the last round of budget bills Republicans sent him.

“I’m not going to swallow it,” Dayton said of those proposals, which started to pop up as legislators worked through the details of the budget bills on Saturday. The jobs and economic development budget still included a ban on local governments prohibiting plastic bags; the public safety bill included contentious language blocking the Department of Public Safety from issuing illegal immigrants driver’s licenses; the environmental budget put a one-year delay on Dayton’s signature policy to implement natural buffers between farmland and waterways. 

Dayton harkened back to 2011, the last time he had a standoff with a Republican-controlled Legislature over the budget. That year, government went into a historic, 20-day shutdown. “The way we resolved the shutdown in 2011: we took all of the policy out of the budget bills,” Dayton said. 

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Republicans said they plan reduce the number of policy measures in the bill, totalling more than 600, according to Dayton. But they added that there is always some policy in budget bills, including provisions that the governor wants. “Every bill always has policy,” said Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka. “As far as the ones that are more volatile, we will communicate with him.”

Those negotations continued over the weekend, even as time was running short. If legislators don’t finish their work by midnight on Monday, Dayton can immediately call them back to a special session, or they can negotiate terms over the following days and weeks. But an agreement must be struck by June 30, the final day of the fiscal year, or state government heads into automatic shutdown.

Dayton has said an important part of his legacy is in adopting a fiscally responsible two-year budget, one that doesn’t leave ballooning expenses in future budgeting years. During his first session in office, in 2011, lawmakers faced a $6 billion budget deficit.

“If we have any kind of economic downturn we are right in the same boat,” he said, and avoiding a similar situation is “a very important part of what I want to leave for my successor.”