Big bills, little time; Much work left in the session’s last week

Published 8:29 am Tuesday, May 16, 2017

By Brian Bakst FM

ST. PAUL — It’s the last full week of the Legislature’s 2017 session. What’s left to do? Almost everything.

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That means lawmakers and lobbyists are expecting a lot of long hours and late days this week.

What is still incomplete?

A state budget, a tax plan, a transportation bill and a general public-works package remain undone.

It’s not unusual for things to bottle up at the end like this. It has become the norm and a deadline tends to force compromise.

But that also means that people trying to track a specific issue or more than one of them might have a hard time keeping up. Things can change fast. Sometimes lawmakers will be left to vote on things they’ve had only hours or minutes to digest.

What is different this time?

The approach. The Republicans who run the House and Senate broke off talks with Gov. Mark Dayton last week and began sending him budget bills he said he would veto.

And that’s what he did on Friday with five of them. Another five budget bills could get to him Monday. And you guessed it, they’ll be vetoed too.

In the meantime, serious negotiations have been frozen in place.

What are some of the things the governor had to say in his veto messages?

There were 18 pages worth of objections. The overarching theme was that when the state has a surplus, there shouldn’t be cuts the size Republicans wanted to make.

But he also had problems with certain campaign finance law changes in the state government bill, with what he saw as eroded environmental protections in the natural resources bill, with changes to Medicaid spending and the elimination of MNsure, the state-run health insurance exchange, in the health and human services bill.

He ended one of the veto letters expressing confidence that the differences can be worked out and the session’s business will be concluded on time.

Where does that leave lawmakers?

The Legislature will have to try again. They’ve already begun behind-the-scenes discussions on what those bills might look like. But they still have to find a way to cut a deal with Dayton and Democrats so those become law and not just fall into the veto heap.

What are the must-haves for both sides?

Republicans see a major tax relief bill as essential for the session. They have been working toward a package with $1 billion in breaks for businesses, senior citizens, farmers, college graduates and more. They also want to give a respectable funding bump to schools and enact a road and bridge funding plan.

Dayton and Democrats say the boost to schools must be the priority. If they had their way, they’d put double the amount of new resources into schools.

Dayton also wants to head off reductions to health care programs and basic state operations. He, too, wants a transportation plan for road construction, but insists it can’t shortchange mass transit.

Is a bonding bill  still in the mix?

Yes, but it probably won’t come together until after the budget.

The bonding bill is the slate of construction projects financed through long-term debt. Lawmakers could pass one that’s between $600 million and $1 billion.

That sounds like a lot, but keep in mind it’s like a home mortgage. The state is paying that cost off over 20 or 30 years, so the immediate impact on the budget won’t be substantial in relative terms.

The trick with that one is building bipartisan support — it’s essential. It takes a three-fifths majority to pass, so Republicans need Democratic votes to make it happen.