Budget matters took a backseat to policy issues Wednesday at the State Capitol, even though lawmakers have just a month left in the session to erase a $5 billion deficit.
Republican leaders insist there's still time to reach a budget deal with DFL Gov. Mark Dayton on a bill-by-bill basis. But the negotiations currently under way on those bills appear to making little headway, and Dayton said he's still not ready to come to the table.
KOCH: NEGOTIATIONS TO HEAT UP SOON
Facing a Friday deadline for policy bills, House and Senate committees were busy Wednesday taking up issues such as requiring ID to vote, prevailing wages and the repeal of local government mandates.
Republican Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch of Buffalo said House and Senate negotiations on the budget bills passed earlier this month will start to heat up once the policy bills are out of the way.
"What we need to do is get a budget solution by May 23, and our goal is to do that and not raise taxes and not make it tougher on Minnesotans," she said. "So, yes I believe that we can do that and still work out that forecasted deficit."
Koch said it would be unfortunate if disagreements over process got in the way of budget negotiations. But Dayton has repeatedly said he won't start dealing until the House and Senate reach unified positions on each budget bill.
Still, a day after he set an end of next week deadline for Republicans to deliver those bills, Dayton took a softer tone.
"I'm willing to work things out, and I'm waiting for the Legislature to pass their budgets so we can get started on our negotiations," he said. "I remain hopeful that we can get this resolved."
EDUCATION AND HHS BILLS ARE HEAVYWEIGHTS
House and Senate negotiators were working on the two largest budget bills: education and health and human services. Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, the chair of the House Education Finance Committee, said he thought there's been progress on the education bill.
"Within the education silo I don't see any barriers or obstacles to us making progress," Garofalo said.
But Garofalo's optimism isn't shared by the governor. Dayton's Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius sent a letter to conference committee members highlighting several concerns.
Cassellius wrote that she does "not consider these bills a starting point for serious negotiations." She also said the objectionable items in both bills "were too numerous to detail."
Members of the Health and Human Services Conference Committee also got a letter from Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson with a list of concerns.
"There was like 35 or 36 items, and I found a few that she left out," said Rep. Tom Huntley, DFL-Duluth, the lone Democrat on the HHS conference committee.
“The governor isn't going to sign a bill when he doesn't know what it's costing.”Rep. Tom Huntley, DFL-Duluth
Huntley said negotiators have been moving slowly. He agrees with Dayton's unwillingness to begin talks until the House and Senate can agree on one position. But Huntley also sees other problems.
"At least $1.2 billion of this bill is questionable," Huntley said. "That means we really don't know what the cost of it is, and obviously the governor isn't going to sign a bill when he doesn't know what it's costing."
Republicans insist that their budget numbers are sound, even though they rely heavily on the anticipated savings from yet-to-be obtained federal health care waivers.
Sen. David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, chair of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, said he believes the state can get that federal relief, if the governor helps.
Hann also claimed that it's Dayton's budget proposal, which relies on an income tax increase for top earners, that doesn't add up.
"Because the assumption is that people aren't going to change their behavior. If you levy a very high tax on the most affluent people in the society, to assume that they're not going to do anything differently and just stay and pay more taxes I think is false," Hann said.
Hann's conference committee is scheduled to meet again Thursday, as the session moves one day closer to the adjournment deadline.