Legislative session comes to crashing finish

DFL Gov. Mark Dayton speaks at a press conference in the Reception Room inside the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul, Minn. on Sunday, May 20, 2018. "I’ve never seen a session this badly mismanaged," he said.
DFL Gov. Mark Dayton speaks at a press conference in the Reception Room inside the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul, Minn. on Sunday, May 20, 2018. "I’ve never seen a session this badly mismanaged," he said.

Posted 5:30 p.m. | Updated at 9:30 p.m. |  Updated at 12:05

Minnesota's three-month legislative session came to a bumpy finish Sunday night,  with DFL Gov. Mark Dayton saying he will veto major bills passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature.

It would leave lawmakers with little to show from their time in St. Paul and, especially for House members, much to explain to voters during the fall campaign.

Just a few hours before the midnight Sunday deadline for bills to pass, Dayton dashed Republican hopes that there was enough to like in tax and budget bills to gain his signature.

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"I've never seen a session this badly mismanaged. I've never seen a session less transparent. I've never seen a session more beholden to special interests," Dayton said, vowing to veto the bills "if they come to me the way they are now."

His bucket of cold water came shortly after Republican leaders extolled their own work and said they were delivering on promises. House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Zimmerman, said Democrats would be wise to "set aside partisan politics and do what’s right by Minnesotans."

Dayton has said frequently that he won't call lawmakers back into a special session to finish the job, and he blamed Republicans for trying to force objectionable provisions down his throat.

"Rather than just continuing to send things that they know are unacceptable so they can score political points, why don't they collaborate with us to solve the problems?" Dayton said. "There's no collaboration, there's no attempt to work things out so we can have successes."

Republicans spent the day sending Dayton a series of bills, some of which were replacing bills that had gone down to earlier vetoes.

One combined $225 million in spending authorization for schools -- only $50 million of it was new money -- with a long roster of tax cuts and changes to deductions for individual filers and businesses.

Senate Taxes Committee Chair Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes, explained the strategy.

"What we’re talking about here is getting something here for the folks of this state and to stop the political games and stunts," Chamberlain said. 

Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, labeled it a "bait and switch" because the tax cuts would grow over time but the new education spending is only temporary.

The tax portions of the bill were nearly identical to those in a bill that Dayton vetoed days ago. The first two income tax rates would gradually drop and some business tax cuts would be phased in. Republicans insisted that corporations would pay more in the short term even if they did better in later years.

Dayton said he wasn't sold on the plan, criticizing Republicans for delivering more guaranteed money to corporations than schools. He based that on the fact that $175 million of new education spending -- meant to avert layoffs and program cuts in some districts -- was accomplished by letting schools use existing allocations in new ways.

The House and Senate saw more bipartisan agreement on a public works construction bill and a bill to shore up public employee pensions. Both measures passed in the closing minutes of the session, the pension bill unanimously. Dayton is expected to sign that, but it's unclear what he will do with the bonding bill.

Still, the tax and budget bills were the main work of the session, and Dayton's opposition led members of both parties to react.

Sen. Chuck Wiger, DFL-Maplewood, came to Dayton’s defense.

"We stand with our governor. And first and foremost, I believe it provides fiscally instability," Wiger said. "And that’s one of the things that Governor Dayton has addressed in his two terms: to get the ship right."

When the bill came to the House floor, several DFLers backed it, including veteran Rep. Paul Marquart of Dilworth. He said failure to pass a tax bill will cost many Minnesotans more money and cause filing headaches.

"The folks back home don’t care who is right or wrong or who is to blame," Marquart said. "People care about results."

Republicans said they would spend the next couple of weeks spelling out the consequences of inaction, calling on everyday Minnesotans to describe how the vetoes would affect their schools, their tax situation or their businesses.

Dayton needed DFLers to stand with him on other items. Republicans tried but failed to override a veto of funding to reimburse deputy registrars for their financial woes caused by a botched vehicle licensing system upgrade. Dayton saw it as a half-measure and said the account the bill tapped would cause new strains.

Rep. Dave Baker, R-Willmar, said he was shocked Dayton held up the licensing bureau money.

"They deserve this and more, and to see a veto today was extremely disappointing; and I found it to be quite honestly hurtful and I hope this can be better," Baker said.

Dayton has never had any of his vetoes overridden. Republicans came up 11 votes shy of the needed 90 for an override; the Senate didn't vote.

Republican leaders also teed up a revised package of public construction projects for a late-night vote. But Dayton’s budget commissioner Myron Frans warned lawmakers that the borrowing bill is far too small.

"This is clearly a missed opportunity," Frans said. "We have the resources, we have the needs and we are not taking care of the things that we need to take care of."

The measure includes $825 million in general obligation bonds -- those that have lower interest rates because they pledge the full faith and credit of the state -- and cash from a variety of existing accounts, bringing the amount of authorized projects to $1.5 billion.

Throughout the day, legislators took up smaller measures as they waited for budget and tax bills to hit the floors. In the House, lawmakers passed a bill to create a working group to evaluate a long-standing rule to limit sulfate discharge into water where wild rice grows. Earlier this session, Dayton vetoed a bill that eliminated the standard altogether, so lawmakers went back to the drawing board.

"Politics aren't perfect, there's something in this legislation that everyone won't like," said Rep. Jason Metsa, DFL-Virginia, who supported the bill. It passed on a 86-42 vote, but not without objection from other Democrats, who said the proposed working group does not include scientists.

"You are substituting science judgment with political judgment," Rep. Jean Wagenius, DFL-Minneapolis, said.