GOP leaders ready four budget bills

Budget deal reached
With House Speaker Kurt Zellers and Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch, Governor Mark Dayton announces a budget deal at the Capitol in St. Paul, Minn. Thursday, July 14, 2011. Budget details are emerging, and negotiators signed off on two budget bill Monday, July 18, 2011
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Minnesota's state government shutdown has now reached 19 days, but Gov. Mark Dayton and Republican legislative leaders are still not ready for a special session that would end the budget impasse.

Final agreements on four budget bills were made public Monday, while the work on the remaining five bills continued. Dayton has said he won't call a special session until all of the bills are written and approved.

One of the bills that's been finalized is the public safety and judiciary bill, which includes funding cuts for the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and legal aid. There's a 5 percent cut for the state Human Rights Department, and prison inmates will have to pay higher health insurance copayments.

The second bill, which covers transportation, cuts funding for the Metropolitan Council and transit programs, but the reductions are considerably less than Republicans had earlier proposed, and the cuts are expected to be backfilled by other funds.

Leaders also signed off on environment and legacy bills.

Other bills were done or close to done, but Republicans remained reluctant to comment until the entire package was completed. Senate Tax Committee Chairwoman Julianne Ortman said she had an afternoon meeting scheduled with the governor and was expecting a deal to be reached on the tax bill. But Ortman, R-Chanhassen, declined to provide any details.

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"I think I owe it to my caucus members first to bring it back to them and show them what's in it, out of respect for them," said Ortman. "We've made a lot of good progress. It looks a lot like the bill that we passed before -- that's what I would say."

Only committee chairs and commissioners have been working on the individual bills, and all of the meetings in recent days have been behind closed doors. Most participants refused to comment on the work.

One exception was Senate Health and Human Services Committee Chairman David Hann, who provided a few details about his bill after negotiations wrapped up Sunday.

Hann, R-Eden Prairie, said the $11 billion health and human services bill will increase spending over current levels by about $1 billion. He said the reform provisions include a program that will allow some MinnesotaCare recipients to buy insurance in the private market. The bill also makes significant reductions in future spending.

"On balance, we think that we did a pretty good job with the resources we have, and we'll see what the public thinks," Hann said.

No details have yet been released.

In addition to the nine budget bills, legislators were also negotiating a $500 million bonding bill, which Dayton required as part of the final agreement. The measure would allow the state to borrow money to pay for public works projects. Dayton and DFLers argued that spending money on those projects would provide jobs for thousands of state residents.

Republicans have kept Democrats out of the discussions on the budget bills, but not the bonding bill. That's because they need the DFL votes to reach the the supermajority threshold required to pass a bonding bill.

State Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, said she expects the bill to receive bipartisan support.

"We don't quite know the final, but it always reflects what we've always had as our priorities," she said. "It is basic infrastructure. Higher education, as always, is a significant part of it."

Hausman said Republicans were still opposed to several local projects that were included in Dayton's bonding proposal, including civic center expansions in Rochester and St. Cloud, and a Saints baseball stadium in St. Paul.

All of the work on budget and bonding bills is taking place inside a State Capitol that is still closed to the public due to the government shutdown. Common Cause Minnesota Executive Director Mike Dean said the current circumstances are an affront to democracy.

"Right now, business is happening in the Capitol, and the public is not being allowed to see what's going on," Dean said. "For that matter, the media actually is not being allowed to really see what's going on. So, we feel it's really critical that it be opened as quickly as possible."

Dean said if a special session isn't scheduled by Tuesday, he's ready to appear before Ramsey County Judge Kathleen Gearin to request a court-ordered opening of the Capitol. He said he thinks public confidence in government is hanging in the balance.

However, the Capitol building will be open to the public when the special session actually takes place, according to Gov. Dayton's office.