Fish or cut bait? Next week is decision time at Capitol

Gov. Mark Dayton
Gov. Mark Dayton is going fishing this weekend as the Legislature heads into the session's final days.
Jim Mone | AP file

It was the week that got away.

After growing impatient with private negotiations, the Republicans who lead the Legislature set out to pass a complete $45 billion two-year spending plan and $1 billion tax cut in the face of a blanket veto threat.

Five of 10 budget bills reached Dayton by Tuesday night. He says he'll veto them before heading north.

"Before I go fishing," Dayton said. He's going to St. Cloud for two days of fishing opener activities at the Mississippi River.

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The other five budget bills stalled in the Senate where Republicans hold a single vote majority. One Republican senator had to rush from St. Paul to be with her gravely ill father and hasn't returned.

In the meantime, top-level negotiations are on hold. That frustrates House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Zimmerman.

"Unfortunately, if we don't come together and start really working together and compromising, it's going to be difficult to get things done on time," he said. "But I think Minnesotans are going to see clearly that's not because of the Legislature but because the governor forced us to the very end again."

Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said Republicans shouldn't be surprised by the standstill after the strategy they used.

"The idea of sending the governor bills that were destined for a certain veto was badly flawed," Bakk said. "When you're trying to sit at the table and negotiate with people with opposing views, it really doesn't advance the process by poking them in the eye at the same time you're trying to talk to them."

So where does that leave them?

In the near term, they'll be in the awkward situation of having to share a fishing boat with each other after a week of false starts and free-flowing criticism.

Dayton joked about it Thursday: "If you see somebody go overboard then I'd be suspicious as to the cause."

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka went with humor, too.

"I don't think we'll talk much about negotiations, unless we say whoever catches the first fish gets to pick the first target. I'd be good with that," he said. "The governor's track record hasn't been that great fishing, so I might have a chance."

But when they get back to the Capitol on Monday, they'll be back in the same stare down they were in the week before.

Time is running short, Dayton said. "If they want to get serious about working this out, we have eight days starting on Monday to resolve. If we're focused on the budget differences, we have to resolve those. I'll have to agree to compromises, they'll have to agree to compromises."

Here's a snapshot: Minnesota has a projected $1.5 billion surplus.

Dayton would put roughly half of that into education initiatives, including an expansion of preschool programs. That's considerably more than the Republican proposals.

The GOP plan cuts taxes to a far greater degree than Dayton recommended. Republicans also use existing tax dollars for transportation projects. To make it balance, they slice spending for state agencies and rely on savings in health care programs.

Gazelka says all sides are fighting for what they believe in, but will soon reach a point when they have to bend.

"We believe that we will get to a finish line without a special session. It will have a transportation bill, which we've all been waiting for. We'll have REAL ID. We'll have a reasonable tax relief bill and the governor will get some of the things he wants to get done as well. And that will be the end game."

Also still hanging is a general construction borrowing bill after two years without one. That legislation requires bipartisan cooperation because it takes a three-fifths majority to pass.

Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, says in the last couple of days majority Republicans have been seeking out her advice — in hopes of landing some of her party's votes. It would take at least four DFLers in the House to pass.

But she says the $600 million proposal won't achieve that. She suggested just shy of $1 billion.

"We don't have time to do the traditional route any more where the House passes one version and the Senate passes another and we go to conference committee," she said. "We have to sit around a table now, get it done and we all have an agreement that's the bill that passing both the House and Senate.

"That's how close we are to the end."

That end arrives on May 22, the day the Legislature must adjourn.