Despite budget surplus, session ends in disagreement, recriminations

Speaker of the House Kurt Daudt
Speaker of the House Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, during the last day of the legislative session Monday, May 18, 2015, at the state Capitol in St. Paul.
Jennifer Simonson | MPR News

Back in December, when finance officials announced that the state had a $1 billion surplus, DFL Gov. Mark Dayton said the surplus would make it more likely that the session would end on time without a government shutdown.

Since then, the surplus doubled but the talk of a smooth end to the session faded away. Over the weekend, when he announced his plan to veto the education bill, Dayton blamed House Republicans for the looming special session.

"It's entirely their fault," he said. "I've said it very clearly. You know I'm the governor. If they want to take the last $1 billion and leave it on the bottom line and walk away and ignore my number one priority, that's not the way the system works."

But divided government has produced more special sessions than smooth endings over the years. Since 2001, five special sessions were necessary because the governor and legislative leaders failed to agree on a budget. The difference this year is that Minnesota has a significant budget surplus, not a deficit.

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When there's a surplus, the governor and lawmakers traditionally cut a deal to give everyone a piece of the pie. This year, the focus seemed to be on ensuring neither got the upper hand.

And so Dayton didn't get his pre-K initiative. House Republicans didn't get their $2 billion tax cut, and Senate Democrats didn't get a 10-year transportation fix.

Over the weekend, Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, discussed how the session should have ended.

"I think the governor has to dig deep and think that the speaker and I both gave up our number one priorities, and maybe he has to give his up if it is 4-year-olds. This lawmaking process is the art of compromise," he said.

But those compromises meant the session ended up with few winners and many losers.

House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, is calling the session a success because of what Senate Democrats didn't get: a gas tax hike. He also said divided government can work.

"Every bill that we put on the governor's desk was bipartisan. We've got a Republican House, a Democratic Senate, and we worked together," he said.

Last day of legislative session in the MN House
Activity on the House floor during the last day of the legislative session Monday, May 18, 2015, at the state Capitol in St. Paul.
Jennifer Simonson | MPR News

But House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, said there were no major accomplishments this session. Thissen complained the higher education bill shortchanged the University of Minnesota and didn't continue tuition freezes, and that Republicans didn't keep their promises to improve transportation or cut taxes.

"What we've seen for the last decade, when we have divided government, we don't get much done in the state," he said.

Thissen and Dayton aren't the only Democrats unhappy with the outcome of the session. Along with complaints about the higher education bill, some said the budget shortchanged health care, the environment and schools as $1 billion sits unspent.

"It's bad policy," Marty said. "Sometimes it wasn't even passed in either House and just slipped in in the last minute. A lot of good things were done, but this isn't the way we should have it. There's no accountability when somebody pops an amendment in conference committee that neither House passed."

It's not clear yet if Bakk or Daudt will end up pushing in the special session to use the remaining $1 billion of the surplus for tax cuts or transportation in exchange for Dayton's early education plan.

But given the experience of the last five months, it won't be easy to find a deal that makes everyone happy.