Bills slowly take shape as session deadline looms

House Ways and Means Chair Jim Knoblach and Senate Finance Chair Dick Cohen talk Saturday before a conference committee meeting. Brian Bakst|MPR News

with Brian Bakst

Facing a midnight Sunday deadline to pass bills, Minnesota lawmakers were still busy Saturday trying craft compromises on several big, outstanding issues.

House and Senate negotiators inched closer to an agreement on how to spend the state’s $900 million surplus. They're also trying to satisfy Gov. Mark Dayton’s most critical demands for a supplemental budget.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said the spending will be roughly $300 million, including $35 million for rural broadband, $35 million for racial equity initiatives and $25 million universal pre-kindergarten. Bakk said the equity money, while less that what Dayton requested, will have an ongoing appropriation.

“I believe the governor reluctantly will sign the bill with that funding at those levels,” Bakk said.

The budget bill will also include a liquor license provision for the planned soccer stadium in St. Paul. A tax break for the stadium is in a separate bill.

House Ways and Means Chair Jim Knoblach, R-St. Cloud, confirmed some of the key numbers, but he didn’t want to get into any specifics.

“I think you’ve got to wait on that,” Knoblach said.

Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka and the lead senator on higher education, voiced disappointment that funding requests by the two public college systems in the state went unanswered.

“Their requests were worthy requests and their rationales were rationale we supported. So that we stand here with a budget target of $5 million, I want to make sure our higher education institutions know that is not a reflection of a lack of belief or support in them,” she said.

Added her House counterpart, Republican Rep. Bud Nornes of Fergus Falls: “We would have hoped to have enough money to grant the wishes, but we were grateful for the $5 million we did have to use. And it’s all about the students and making the best investment we can to help the students.”

Senate Democrats made a new offer for a bonding bill. The $1.4 billion package of public construction projects is smaller than the Senate DFL’s $1.5 billion bonding bill that failed to pass this session. It’s also the same size of Gov. Mark Dayton, bonding proposal. But it’s significantly larger than the $800 million bill that House Republicans failed to pass.

Still, the chair of the Senate bonding committee described the new offer a compromise.

“We worked with project advocates to see where we could make reductions in our original proposal – this newer bill lowers our bonding number by more than $100 million,” said Sen. LeRoy Stumpf, DFL-Plummer. “The existing projects and funding are a reflection of the critical needs facing communities across our state.”

Republicans were not impressed.

Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, said the Senate hasn’t moved far enough.

“It’s way too big to swallow, frankly. It’s really too big for the state of Minnesota. We’ve looked at debt service that we already have to deal with. This would add significantly to it. It sets a new precedent. It would be the largest bonding bill in the history of the state.” in Minnesota. Torkelson said he doesn’t plan to make a counter offer. He said he’s waiting for House and Senate leaders to agree on a bonding target.

One item lawmakers thought they had settled a day ago was a regulations package for police body cameras But Dayton was uncomfortable with a clause allowing police officers to review their tapes prior to writing statements or making comments to investigators. Bill proponents agreed they would reopen the bill and remove the provision. Dayton's aides told lawmakers he would sign the bill if that was done.

Lawmakers were also trying to break an impasse on transportation funding.

House Republicans

were expected to present a new offer during an afternoon conference committee meeting.

outlined proposed legislation for funding roads, bridges and transit projects. But House Transportation Chair Tim Kelly, R-Red Wing, described the plan as “some thoughts” and “not a formal offer or a formal House position.”

The plan uses $300 million in existing sales tax revenue, $100 million in license tab fees and $200 million in trunk highway funds for road and bridge projects. It allows for a local option, quarter-cent metro sales tax to fund transit projects.

Kelly said the local sales tax would allow counties to take over the operating cost of light rail transit. He said the Southwest Light Rail Transit project would have to meet “very specific criteria” to receive any additional state funding.

“We would like to get the state of Minnesota out of the business of building and operating rail,” Kelly said.

Rep. Ron Erhadt, DFL-Edina, urged the conference committee to quickly accept the plan.

“I think we should pass this today and get it on the governor’s desk tomorrow if we can,” Erhardt said. “I think we should whiz bang it through and see what happens.”

Senate Transportation Chair Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, described the proposal as “significant movement.” Dibble said the Senate wants a constitutional amendment on the ballot this fall to dedicate the sales tax on auto parts and a percentage of the gas tax currently collected from recreational vehicles to transportation.

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