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Minnesota Legislature prepares for its ritual mad dash

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Two men talk on the second floor of the Minnesota State Capitol.
Two men talk on the second floor of the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul on Tuesday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Minnesota lawmakers head into a pressure-packed weekend, searching for consensus on plans to cut taxes, give schools financial breathing room, aid in the fight against opioid addiction and finance a raft of construction projects.

They have until midnight Sunday to stitch it all together. 

But first, the Republicans who control the House and Senate must figure out how to merge DFL Gov. Mark Dayton's demands with their own priorities. They have a $329 million projected budget surplus at their disposal.

 Dayton: Tax plan must commit money to schools

Dayton and leading lawmakers were set to meet privately Friday afternoon.

On Thursday, Dayton vetoed the Legislature's first stab at a tax bill, which would have lowered rates in the first two income tax brackets and reworked the business side of the tax code, too. He called the package fiscally unsustainable and said he wouldn't sign any tax plan until lawmakers commit to more money for schools.

"This veto is for these children and their futures and for children all over St. Paul and the state of Minnesota," Dayton said as he delivered the veto at a St. Paul elementary school, surrounded by students.

Sen. Carla Nelson, chair of the  Senate Education Finance Committee,  criticized Dayton for using schoolchildren as "props."

"There's enough politics. We do not need to bring them into our schools," she said.

But Nelson, R-Rochester, said House and Senate staff who concentrate on school issues have been meeting since Tuesday as they try to figure out a solution that Dayton might accept.

"We have a list of options," Nelson said. "Quite frankly I have Plan A, Plan B, an escape module Plan C and now I'm getting a Plan D in my back pocket, too."

Legislators debate a bill on the house floor.
Legislators debate a bill on the house floor inside the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul on Tuesday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Nelson said she wasn't at liberty to go into detail yet, but said the difficulty is crafting a plan that gets money where it's needed without penalizing districts that are managing their budgets well.

"We believe that all kids should be treated fairly and we believe that all school districts should be treated fairly," she said, calling it a "Band-Aid at best."

 Lawmakers' to-do list

The school conundrum isn't the only one in the way of an orderly finish.

Lawmakers are also weighing whether to:

• Realign Minnesota's tax code to prevent increases that would occur after a federal overhaul slimmed the deductions people can take.

• Authorize borrowing for hundreds of millions of dollars in public building projects, from repairs on existing facilities to replacement of wastewater treatment centers to new veterans homes. 

• Send a constitutional amendment to voters that would carve out automobile-related sales taxes for road projects. The House has voted to do that, but things look grim in the Senate.

• Assess fees on manufacturers of prescription pain medication to pay for addiction treatment, overdose prevention and prescription drug monitoring.

• Create new protections for elderly and vulnerable adults in care facilities by increasing oversight powers, enabling quicker investigations and giving families more recourse when abuse occurs.

Sen. Julie Rosen
Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Fairmont, introduces an amendment to the health insurance exchange bill before the Minnesota Senate at the state Capitol March 7, 2013, in St. Paul.
Jim Mone | AP 2013

• Impose new penalties on distracted driving and perhaps make Minnesota the 17th state to declare that drivers can only use phones in a hands-free mode.

 Budget bill hanging

Dayton faces decisions on several controversial bills already headed his way. One would force the  Public Utilities Commission to issue a permit for an  Enbridge Energy   replacement oil pipeline  across northern Minnesota. Another elevates penalties for protesters convicted of blocking freeways, airport roads or transit lines. 

Many of the session's outstanding items are contained in a sweeping budget measure that still hasn't been finalized.

 Senate Finance Committee  Chair Julie Rosen, R-Vernon Center, said she and her House counterpart were planning to meet soon with Dayton's budget chief to start sorting through provisions that could sink the bill.

"We'll be going through the bill and looking at the 63 objections that the governor has," Rosen said Thursday. "I haven't seen the list."

Rosen said Dayton did make clear he had problems with a plan to dramatically restructure the state's technology agency and to require all other agencies to use 3.5 percent of their operating budgets on information security.

One seemingly popular portion of the bill would set aside about $28 million in the coming year for school safety initiatives, with more promised in the years ahead.

The money could go for shoring up building security, adding a school resource officer or hiring more counselors. Nelson said flexibility is key.

Rep. Sarah Anderson in St. Paul on Feb. 16, 2017.
Rep. Sarah Anderson in St. Paul on Feb. 16, 2017.
Tim Nelson | MPR News 2017

"Every school district is very different. We should not be telling them what their safety needs are. One size does not fit all," she said. "In fact rarely does one size fit all, especially when it comes from St. Paul."

 What is left out of budget bill? 

The bill will be notable for what goes into it and what's left out. 

Despite a 121-4 House vote to include a change to a sexual harassment legal standard, the proposal was dropped. It would have allowed people alleging harassment to take cases forward even if the mistreatment isn't "severe or pervasive," a standard courts have relied upon for years.

Also excluded is a $4 million allotment to open a new office that would investigate and otherwise be responsible for rooting out sexual harassment in state government. The House had proposed paying for it by diverting money from a Viking stadium reserve account.

The account had also been tapped to assist in construction of new veterans homes in Bemidji, Preston and Montevideo. The Senate prefers to borrow for those, as does Dayton.

House State Government Finance Chair Sarah Anderson, R-Plymouth, said she hasn't given up on using money from what she sees as a stadium "slush fund."

"This is definitely not over," she said. 

Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said that uncertainty could be said about everything still in flux.

"These non-budget years are really difficult. It's hard because nothing really has to pass. It's hard to negotiate a deal," Bakk said. "When things don't have to happen it's hard to have a strong negotiating position to accomplish something."