Minnesota lawmakers are past the halfway point of their 2011 session, and with less than two months to the May 23 adjournment deadline, much work remains. Most critically, Gov. Mark Dayton and Republicans who control the Legislature are still far apart on how to eliminate a projected $5 billion shortfall for the next two years.
Here's a rundown of what's been accomplished, and what's still simmering:
There's a clash in political worldviews between Dayton and the GOP. The Democratic governor has an income tax increase on Minnesota's top earners as his main component; Republicans won't touch it. The GOP is instead forwarding budget bills that dramatically scale back or cut planned spending for health and social service programs, aid to city governments, transit and budgets for state agencies and higher education institutions. Public workers would see benefits curtailed and goals for government workforce reduction would be implemented. The House and Senate are expected to hold floor debates and votes on their budget bills in the coming week.
Dayton suggested the state issue $1 billion in construction bonds to build civic and college buildings, flood construction projects, roads and bridges. The governor says construction projects mean new jobs, but Republicans say it's a bad time for the state to borrow that kind of money. GOP leaders have indicated they would support a smaller amount of state bonding to pay for flood-control projects in Minnesota communities. Republicans are also pushing to cancel authorization for previous bonding, including for rail projects and the Minneapolis Planetarium.
There will be haggling over how public school aid - the largest piece of the budget pie - is structured. Special allowances for urban districts are at risk. Expect a payment shift that delays aid checks to all schools to stay in place. Dayton and Republicans did find common ground on a bill the governor signed making it easier for professionals from non-teaching backgrounds to get a license and lead a public school classroom. Many legislative Democrats signed on too, though the state's biggest teacher's union opposed its passage.
The House and Senate voted to lift a moratorium that's prevented regulators from approving permits for new nuclear plants in Minnesota. But Dayton has described a few must-have changes to obtain his signature, including one keeping utilities from passing on costs to consumers before a plant is ready. Nuclear worries in the wake of the Japan disaster could be another obstacle. Legislators may also vote on a Republican-backed bill to lift a separate moratorium on construction of new coal plants.
Dayton and Republicans struck a deal on a bill to ease red tape in obtaining environmental permits the state requires for business ventures - from iron mines to animal feedlots to commercial development. The bill sets a 150-day deadline for state agencies to issue environmental permits. It also lets businesses commission preliminary environmental reviews, which some Democrats and environmental groups say is a conflict.
Dollar signs are alluring for advocates of expanded gambling. Sponsors of legislation allowing slot machines at two Twin Cities-area racetracks suggest that proceeds could fuel a state trust fund for job incentives and entrepreneurial ventures. The Minnesota Lottery would have to run the so-called racinos, but private interests would get a cut. Past gambling proposals have run into opposition from social conservatives and Minnesota Indian tribes, who are protective of their casino monopoly. Dayton says he is open to expanded gambling but prefers it come in the form of one casino in downtown Minneapolis or near the Mall of America, with proceeds earmarked for education.
A proposal scrapping a Sunday sales ban at liquor stores squeaked through a Senate committee, but faces a difficult path from there. The law has been on the books for generations and the liquor store industry is split on the measure. Some argue it would make Minnesota more competitive with border states and bring in extra sales tax dollars, but others say the uptick in sales wouldn't offset the costs of being open another day. Another bill would let brewpubs sell bottled beer that can be taken off site.
Dayton signed a law keeping Minnesota's jobless eligible for 13 weeks of extended federal unemployment benefits. Another new law adopts some federal tax credits on the state level. A third stiffens penalties for people who harm police and other public safety dogs.
Now that census figures are in hand, the fight over political boundaries is about to heat up. It's a process that occurs only once a decade and the results can influence elections for years to come. By virtue of their current majorities, Republicans will guide the process in the Legislature. But Dayton would have to sign off on any plan. It's just as likely a panel of judges will draw the congressional and legislative maps in the end.
GOP-sponsored bills would ban state funding of abortions and prohibit abortions in the state after the 20th week of pregnancy, but face less-than-certain prospects given Dayton's firm support of legalized abortion. Social conservative activists who've long sought a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage in Minnesota have said they're OK with the issue not coming up until 2012.
STATE GOVERNMENT AND UNION MEASURES:
With the firmly pro-labor Dayton in office, Republican legislators admit they lack the wherewithal to push serious curbs on collective bargaining and state worker union membership that provoked rampant protests in Wisconsin. Still, some Republicans have introduced bills to reduce the overall number of state workers, close some state agencies, and trim pensions and other worker benefits.
There has been no shortage of chatter and reports of behind-the-scenes meetings, but with March nearly over there's still no legislation for a Vikings stadium. Dayton is generally supportive; Republican leaders say budget decisions are more important, but haven't precluded a stadium vote. Fears loom that failure to green-light a replacement for the Metrodome will drive the Vikings to another city. But even stadium backers worry how it would look for lawmakers to authorize money for a pro sports team stadium while cutting the budget elsewhere.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)