Long talks in private, silence in public feed budget hopes

Published 10:43 am Thursday, May 14, 2015

Long talks in private, silence in public feed budget hopes

ST. PAUL — Minnesota’s legislative leaders reported progress Wednesday in drawn-out budget talks but shared few details about areas of possible agreement on a new $40 billion-plus state budget they’ll have little time to pass.

The top Democrats and Republicans returned to Gov. Mark Dayton’s official residence for more than eight hours of private negotiations that center around how much of a $1.9 billion projected surplus to direct to schools, health care, tax relief and other programs the state supplies.

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They have moved beyond orienting each other about competing plans and trading offers, said House Majority Leader Joyce Peppin, a Republican.

Other lawmakers and cabinet officials filtered in and out of those meetings as the topics hopped from higher education to health and human services to jobs programs. Top negotiators offered little insight into the substance of their talks or remaining areas of dispute as talks wrapped up late Wednesday.

“We’re still working,” House Speaker Kurt Daudt said, adding that hammering out a deal in time for the Legislature’s Monday deadline is still in the cards. The two sides plan to resume negotiations Thursday.

Before taking the 2-mile drive from the Capitol to the mansion Wednesday morning, Democratic Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk said the prior day’s discussions had brought movement in every category of a two-year state budget. But he said there were still wide gaps to overcome, including over the fate of the MinnesotaCare health insurance program for the working poor.

Daudt, the Legislature’s leading Republican, has begun moving from the House GOP’s prior position that MinnesotaCare be ended soon, saying his caucus members would consider a gradual shift of those enrollees to the MNsure health insurance exchange.

MinnesotaCare provides coverage to 90,000 people who make too much to qualify for Medicaid but less than 200 percent of the federal poverty guidelines. Its main funding source, a tax on medical providers, is set to expire in 2019.

Bakk said Democrats won’t agree to end the program abruptly but would agree to a task force that would eventually recommend ways to retool MinnesotaCare.

“The Legislature needs to have a group of stakeholders explore what the options are,” Bakk said. “I don’t know what it looks like. I just know that we need more information.”

Daudt wouldn’t say if a task force was sufficient for his GOP members.

The negotiations have shifted in one regard: The sides are refraining from airing grievances in public as the talks get more serious and sensitive.

Daudt said he was upbeat about the session concluding by midnight on Monday, the constitutional adjournment deadline.

“Things tend to come together pretty quickly at the end,” he said. “It seems like you have a long ways to go and it all comes together.”

Even if top officials agree to a broad budget framework soon, the Legislature will have to scramble to approve as many as nine bills that make up the budget.