Budget preseason nears end, negotiations to begin

With Tim Pugmire

All cards in Minnesota's budget debate are now face up as the House and Senate advanced vastly different proposals they'll bring to the end-of-session bargaining table.

The versions headed toward votes Thursday on both floors won't resemble the final product weeks from now, if the GOP-led House and DFL-controlled Senate can come together at all. They have competing plans for dividing up a $900 million projected surplus and each will have to give in on priorities to reach accord.

Unlike last year, when fractured budget negotiations caused state government to flirt with a shutdown, the pressure to get a deal is far less this session. And so far, neither side has given much indication it'll budge.

Despite veto warnings from Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton, House Republicans added anti-abortion measures to the final of three budget bills. They're among several provisions Dayton said he finds onerous.

"The combination of zero funding for areas that I proposed funding combined with policy measures that have no business in a supplemental budget bill make me very pessimistic that House Republicans want to do anything other than put content into their campaign literature for next fall," Dayton said Thursday.

House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Zimmerman, replied that Dayton was resorting to talking points, and he called on the governor to engage more fully in the budget debate. He defended the outlines of the House budget approach, which is to preserve the surplus for use on road construction and tax cuts.

"We feel like we're in a great position because we're on the side of the public. What we want to do is accomplish middle-class tax relief that really will help middle-class Minnesotans who aren't seeing a surplus in their own family budget like the state is," Daudt said. "We also want to put some money into roads and bridges and do it in a way that doesn't take more money out of Minnesotans' budgets. We have enough money in the surplus right now to accomplish both of those goals."

The budget bill that consumed hours of debate Thursday would clamp down on state agency travel and cut salaries for commissioners. On the health care side, it would start the process of shifting Minnesota into a federal health care exchange.

In the Senate, majority Democrats used a single budget bill that would carve up much of the surplus for new or expanded programs.

The DFL bill includes spending increases for education, rural broadband expansion and programs to tackle racial economic disparities. But Senate Republicans argued that the money should go toward transportation funding, which was an unresolved issue from last session.

Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, said last year’s unfinished work is the reason there is a surplus.

“We fully funded the state budget last year with two exceptions,” Hann said. “We didn’t fund the transportation bill and we did not do a tax bill. Those are the two priorities that everybody in the Legislature that I heard of said we needed to do this year.”

Senate Transportation Chair Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, opposed the effort to use one-time spending rather than continue work on a long-range funding measure for roads, bridges and transit. Dibble said conference committee negotiations on last year’s transportation bills will be gearing up soon.

Senate Democrats favor a gas tax increase, while House Republicans insist on using only existing revenues.

“It’s the House that can’t quite decide how much general fund they want to spend and how much they want to spend it on,” Dibble said.

The Senate supplemental spending plan is similar what Dayton is seeking.

Dayton ramped up his criticism of the House plan Thursday by accusing House Republicans of pandering  to their “extreme right-wing base” with “policy charades.” As an example, he singled out the House provision to make Planned Parenthood ineligible for state grants because it provides abortions.

“These issues should not be part of supplemental budget bills,” Dayton said. “They're trying to tie these issues into essential spending items because they think that that’s going to require me to swallow those policy measures in order to get the funding necessary. I put them on notice. It’s not going to happen.”

Tensions rose in the Senate when majority Democrats amended the bill with a provision reallocating Republican office space inside the State Office Building to the Revisor of Statutes.

Office space has been an ongoing touchy subject between Senate Democrats and Republicans. DFL lawmakers moved into the new $90 million Minnesota Senate Building that they supported before the start of the 2016 session. GOP lawmakers who opposed the project refused to move in until after the election.

The amendment from Sen. Ann Rest, DFL-New Hope, cancels the current lease and significantly reduces the amount of space available for lawmakers.

“It is not evicting you,” Rest said. “You still have 13,000 square feet of space to operate your caucus in. What we are doing is saving the taxpayers money.”

Republicans were outraged.

Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, compared the debate to a family feud.

“This is the first time in my life that I’ve been embarrassed to be a Minnesota senator,” Nelson said.

Minority Leader Hann also took issue with the DFL amendment.

“I hope the public is watching because this is the business of the state to see what you can do to just stick your finger in the eye of the minority,” Hann said.

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