Prayers, promises and proposals but few agreements at the Capitol

The Minnesota House meets during the final week of the legislative session.
The Minnesota House meets during the final week of the 2017 legislative session inside the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2017

Time is a precious commodity this time of year at the Legislature. For those keeping track, there are 16 days for lawmakers to finish up. Most checklist items sought by Republicans and Democrats have yet to be marked as complete.

Those include: opioid initiatives, school safety measures, elder care initiatives, MNLARS, a tax bill and a public works construction bill.

It's not unusual for a lot to be in flux at this stage. But Dayton and the Republican majorities haven't exactly worked all that well together in recent years.

This week saw a new taste of their deep-rooted differences.

House and Senate leaders celebrated the passage of separate plans to realign Minnesota's tax system and cut taxes for many individuals and businesses, but Dayton didn't join the party.

Instead, he threw a major new spending initiative on the table. Dayton called two news conferences to seek $126 per student in additional aid for schools, tapping into the state's projected surplus.

"If they snip away a few of those tax cuts for millionaires and multi-millionaires they'll have plenty of money to do this," he said.

Dayton said the aid is needed to prevent teacher layoffs and program cuts many districts plan to implement because of squeezed budgets.

But Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, said it will be tough to accommodate Dayton's new pitch.

"Unfortunately, it came way too late," he said. "I mean, we've set out our targets for spending and the kind of resources we need for the tax bill and to suddenly put out a large number for any particular budget area at this late date makes it extremely difficult."

Dayton was airing his own grievances about late-breaking proposals.

House Republicans released an $825 million plan to borrow for construction projects, from repairs on college campuses to sewer upgrades.

"Where's the other half?" asked Dayton.

The Republican plan is half the size of Dayton's borrowing request. He called the House bill woefully inadequate.

"It's guaranteed to underfund and not fund projects that are really important."

Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, who is the bill's chief sponsor said he structured it to be geographically fair and meet critical needs.

He agreed the numbers and the project mix might have to shift some, but he's not expecting the price tag to grow dramatically.

"The governor doesn't have to get votes to pass bills. He can throw out any number he wants to. I throw out $1.5, $2 billion, I can say, 'Goodbye Republicans.' I'm not going to get votes to pass that bill," he said.

Senate Republicans line up before a prayer.
Senate Republicans line up in front of the state Capitol before a prayer is said on their behalf Thursday.
Brian Bakst | MPR News

The Senate expects to put out its bonding proposal next week. That's when negotiations over the tax and budget measures will begin.

Gazelka says he's still optimistic about everything coming together in time.

"It still feels like everything is starting to flow," he said after taking part in a prayer event on the Capitol lawn Thursday.

Gazelka shared a prayer, too, and told the crowd he aims to show Minnesota that its leaders can work through thorny issues.

In the session's final two weeks, divine intervention would surely come in handy.

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