Minnesota lawmakers return amid messy politics, construction

Tom Bakk, from left,  Mark Dayton, Kurt Daudt
Gov. Mark Dayton, center, sits between Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, left, and House Speaker Kurt Daudt, right, as top lawmakers met with the media on Feb. 25 in St. Paul to answer questions regarding the upcoming 2016 legislative session, which convenes March 8.
Jim Mone | AP

Minnesota lawmakers return to St. Paul Tuesday for the start of an election-year session that will be long on challenges and potentially short on accomplishments.

Republicans and Democrats ended last year's session in a stalemate over transportation funding and tax cuts. It looks like that's exactly where the new session will begin.

The session's later-than-usual start is due to the massive renovation work underway inside the Minnesota Capitol. Despite the building's construction zone status, the House still plans to use its chamber. Public access will be limited and there's no running water.

Meanwhile, state senators will meet in a new building across the street, and Gov. Mark Dayton's office remains in temporary quarters at the other end of the Capitol mall.

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Dayton calls it a tough situation.

"I found it extremely difficult to be in another building, removed from the Legislature while the Legislature is in session," he said. "This time it's going to be even worse, because the access there is going to be extremely limited. I don't know how my staff and the commissioners are going to be able to access legislators directly while they're in session."

Dayton is also bracing for the challenges of divided government. Those philosophical differences led to a budget impasse last spring that took a special session to resolve.

The DFL governor recently said he was pessimistic about getting a meaningful transportation bill this year, even though it's one of his priorities. Dayton prefers a dedicated gas tax increase for road and bridge projects. He opposes a House Republican plan to use existing sales tax revenue from the general fund.

Dayton warned he would not "gut the general fund and shift $500 million a biennium out of the general fund over into transportation." He reiterated that he wants "a continuing source of secure revenue, so the construction industry can gear up knowing that we have a 10-year commitment here to do what we need to do."

Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt says he's optimistic about getting a transportation deal, if all sides can focus on the areas where they agree. Daudt made it clear that a gas tax increase is not one of those areas.

"The bottom line is that hurts Minnesotans, and particularly in greater Minnesota," said Daudt, R-Crown. "To just take more money out of their budget when we have a surplus doesn't make any sense to them. We can accomplish this. We can do it with the resources they've already given us."

House Republicans are also still pushing for the $2 billion in tax cuts that they passed last session. Their plan includes a phase out of the tax on Social Security income.

Democrats say the cost of those tax cuts is too high.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk amplified his concerns during a recent session briefing with reporters.

"A total exemption of income tax on Social Security, once it's phased in, would cost about $600 million a year," said Bakk, DFL-Cook. "We just don't have that kind of money sitting around to do that."

The latest state economic forecast showed even less money than expected sitting around. The revised budget surplus of $900 million was $300 million lower than in was in early December.

Bakk said the shrinking surplus makes spending decisions harder this session. He said that includes a large bonding bill.

Dayton has already proposed $1.4 billion in borrowing for public construction projects throughout the state. House Republicans say they want to keep the bonding bill at about $800 million.

There are a few areas of agreement heading into the 2016 session.

House and Senate leaders are pledging quick action on a measure to extend unemployment benefits for laid-off Iron Range workers. They're also ready to pass a measure to move the state toward compliance with the federal driver's license requirements.