Health care dominates budget talks

Gov. Mark Dayton and legislative leaders are meeting in private again today trying to reach an agreement on a two-year state budget.

Before the meeting, Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said the negotiations have focused on spending for health and human services programs. In particular, Bakk said negotiators are talking about a House Republican plan to eliminate MinnesotaCare, a state subsidized health insurance program for the working poor.

“I think out of this will emerge some sort of task force or study of some kind that will make a report to a future Legislature next year or 2017 about what kind of options or alternatives that the Legislature could consider for that population,” Bakk said.

By agreeing to a task force to study MinnesotaCare, negotiators would be  bridging a major disagreement over the budget.

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House Republicans have proposed scrapping MinnesotaCare and shifting the 90,000 people currently enrolled in the program into MNsure, the state’s health insurance exchange. Dayton and Senate Democrats say they do not support that idea.

House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said legislators need to address MinnesotaCare, especially since the health care provider tax used to pay for the program is scheduled to end in 2019.

“Obviously this is something that we can't just ignore,” Daudt said. “We need to deal with it, and we're working through that."

Dayton has proposed funding a task force to study the financing of MinnesotaCare and other health care programs when he released his supplemental budget in March.

On the broader budget, Bakk also appears to be softening his stance on taxes and transportation – two items he declared earlier this week to be dead for the session.

Bakk said negotiators haven’t spent a lot of time on either of those issues during private talks. But he said transportation is a key priority for his caucus, tax cuts are a key issue for House Republicans and universal pre-k for four-year-olds is a priority for Gov. Dayton.

“We’re trying to figure out how is it that we come out of this session with everybody getting some version of what they want,” Bakk said.

House Republicans have balked at raising the gas tax to pay for transportation. They want to cut taxes by $2 billion and fund transportation by using part of the surplus, borrowing and dedicating sales taxes from auto parts, rental cars and leased vehicles.

Republicans also say Dayton’s request to fund universal pre-k is too expensive and unwieldy for local school districts.

Dayton contends universal pre-k is a way to fix the state’s achievement gap.

He canceled a scheduled public appearance Wednesday with Minnesota State University Mankato students to continue budget talks.