Session ends in a rush; special session likely

Senate majority leader Tom Bakk, left, and Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, spoke on the senate floor during the last night of the legislative session Monday, May 18, 2015 at the State Capitol in St. Paul.

The Minnesota Legislature made its midnight deadline to pass a two-year $42 billion state budget, but only by rushing a vote on a jobs bill that most lawmakers had no time to read.

The House passed the bill with no debate, with Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown,  ignoring the objections of Democrats who wished to be heard.  The House then adjourned the session a minute before the clock struck 12.

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The hurried House vote followed a longer debate in the Senate, where members complained they were being asked to vote on amendments they hadn't seen to a bill they hadn't read.

The chaotic finish capped a long last week of closed-door negotiations that resulted in a deal between Daudt and Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, on a budget that left Gov. Mark Dayton on the sidelines saying the two had ignored his top session priority, statewide universal pre-kindergarten for 4-year-olds.

Dayton said repeatedly that he would veto a school funding bill that didn't include the pre-K funding, but the Legislature passed the bill anyway. When Dayton vetoes the bill, a special session will be required to pass a replacement.

With the renovation of the state Capitol moving into high gear this week, it remains unclear when or where a special session could take place. After the governor said a tent on the lawn would do, the St. Paul Hotel announced it would be willing to host the special session free of charge.

A $1.9 billion surplus and some common goals were supposed to smooth the way for Minnesota’s divided government. But the session ended for the DFL governor, Republican House and DFL Senate with $1 billion left unspent, no transportation funding or tax relief, and a bitter standoff over education funding.

Still, Daudt said he was pleased with the overall results.

“We got our work done and we got it done on time, and I’m pretty proud of that,”said Daudt.

Daudt said he was disappointed the session didn't include a transportation funding measure, but he’s pleased that Democrats didn't get a gas tax increase. He also wanted a package of tax cuts. But he’s not giving up on either issue.

Speaker of the House Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, during the last day of the legislative session . Jennifer Simonson | MPR News

“We’ll come back next year. We've left a significant amount of money on the bottom line," he said. "We’ll take another bite at the apple. I think we can give them some tax relief. I think we can pass a comprehensive transportation plan.”

Bakk was pleased with the session, too. He said a divided government seemed to work.

“In all my years here, this was I think the most bipartisan session I've ever seen.”

Despite repeated veto threats, lawmakers passed the education funding bill on the final day that doesn't include Dayton’s top priority: funding for universal preschool. It does, however, include $400 million in new money for schools.

House Education Finance Chair Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie, said the bill is a good bipartisan compromise. She said it would be “incredibly disappointing” to lose it to a veto.

“Well, you’re talking about really starting from scratch," she said. "The governor’s demand for a specific program that does not have public support and does not have the votes to pass just presents a no-win situation.”

The list of session accomplishments includes more money for rural nursing homes, recovery assistance for the bird flu outbreak and a new requirement for buffer strips between farm fields and bodies of water. Buffers was another of the governor’s priorities.

But when it comes to vetoes, Bakk cautioned that Dayton might not stop with the education bill. He said there are House provisions in other bills that the governor doesn't like.

“I would characterize them as poison pills that potentially could lead to a veto," Bakk said. "But they have decided to move ahead with those provisions and risk the veto. I've raised the issue that once the governor vetoes the first bill, they get easier. If he’s going to call a special session, add a few other things to the list, right?”

Bakk said he wanted to take a few days off, so it could be weeks before the governor would call a special session.

DFL State Auditor Rebecca Otto wants Dayton to veto the state government finance bill. She objects to a provision that allows county officials to bypass her office and get audited by private firms. Otto said the change would be a devastating to her office.

“Our office has some the biggest experts in the state of Minnesota, if not the nation. They’re some of the best trained and they have years of experience," Otto said. "If you diminish the function of that division, we can only get so small before it’s gone, and when it’s gone, it’s not going to come back.”

Otto said she received assurances from Dayton, who once served as state auditor, that he will reject the bill. A spokesman for the governor said he was unaware of any such pledge.

Rep. Sarah Anderson, R-Plymouth, chair of the state government finance committee, said the provision simply gives counties an option that cities and school districts already have.

“It’s going to give them a cost savings and hopefully give them faster results on their audits, two of the complaints that we’ve heard from counties as far as the state auditor goes,” she said.

Among the final bills passed by the Legislature were:

  • A health and human services measure that increases funding for nursing homes, raises premiums for MinnesotaCare enrollees, and makes minor changes to MNsure.

  • The school funding bill that adds $400 million over the next two years to increase per-pupil spending and early childhood education. Still, Dayton says he will veto it.

  • An agriculture and environment measure that requires farmers to leave buffer zones between cropland and bodies of water, provides money to respond to the outbreak of avian flu, and abolishes the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency's citizen advisory board.