Lawmakers wrap up session in a blur of bills, questions

Published 7:20 am Tuesday, May 22, 2018

By Kyle Potter and Youssef Rddad

Associated Press

ST. PAUL, Minn. — The Minnesota Legislature wrapped up its work at midnight Sunday with the familiar last-minute flurry of votes and political machinations but surrounded by question marks, as Gov. Mark Dayton threatened to veto major tax and spending bills.

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The ramifications of the latest round of gridlock at the Capitol could be huge, as the failure to enact a bill syncing Minnesota’s tax code with sweeping federal changes would create a massively complex tax filing season next year and hit hundreds of thousands of Minnesota families and some businesses with tax increases. Dayton’s veto of a budget bill would prevent new funding for schools to improve their security and efforts to boost oversight of senior care facilities — all deemed top priorities throughout the spring.

In the final 30 minutes before the deadline, the House and Senate held rapid-fire votes with little discussion, including on a bill that would authorize $1.5 billion in public works projects and another shoring up public worker pension accounts. Lawmakers also repassed a bill with money funding opioid abuse prevention and treatment, with GOP senators hastily explaining that it made several corrections to provisions previously included in the broader budget package.

“This is no way to run a circus. This is ridiculous,” Democratic Sen. Tony Lourey said late Sunday night.

In the end, Dayton and Republicans who control the Legislature deadlocked more over approach than subjects. Dayton insisted that many of those priorities travel in separate bills, while the Legislature stuffed a nearly 1,000-page budget bill full of both controversial policies and some of Dayton’s spending priorities. Their tax bill, with modest income tax rate cuts for many Minnesotans, was coupled with one of Dayton’s top requests: additional public school funding for districts suffering budget shortfalls.

Rather than work out their differences, Dayton and Republicans spent the final hours trading blame in dueling news conferences for the rocky ending to the legislative session. House Speaker Kurt Daudt and fellow GOP legislative leaders accused Dayton of abandoning negotiations.

Dayton lashed out at Republicans, calling their legislative maneuvering “vile and disgusting” and suggesting they were geared toward election wins. With just three hours remaining in session, he issued a clear warning to lawmakers.

“If they come to me the way they are now, I will veto them,” Dayton said. “It’s been a debacle, a debacle of their creation.”

The Legislature was constitutionally required to stop passing bills at midnight Sunday, but a final verdict on the session may take days. Despite his veto threat, Dayton has 14 days to decide whether to sign bills.

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka held out hope that Dayton would reconsider and sign the bills after weighing the importance of conforming the tax code, funding for schools and security improvements, and opioid abuse control.

“I think as he looks into it, I’m hoping that he will consider the ramifications,” Gazelka said. “I think the ramifications are too large.”

The usual deadline pressure at the Legislature wasn’t as acute this year, as lawmakers already approved a two-year budget last year. And only the House is up for re-election this year — Dayton is leaving office after two terms, and state senators won’t face voters again until 2020. But the stakes were still high.

State officials were focused on trying to forestall incidental tax hikes on families and businesses due to the federal tax overhaul. And the mismatch between state and federal tax codes threatened to make tax filing in 2019 a logistical nightmare for all taxpayers.

Republicans who control the Legislature took two tries at a tax bill. Their proposal would sync the two tax codes while modestly cutting income tax rates on the two lowest tax brackets. Dayton vetoed the first bill last week, demanding that the Legislature first help 59 Minnesota school districts fill budget shortfalls and penalize companies moving foreign profits back into the state more harshly.

The GOP House and Senate responded by folding some school funding into an otherwise unchanged tax bill, which they passed to Dayton’s desk Sunday afternoon.  But Dayton and his administration made clear Sunday night that funding still fell far short.

Much of the $225 million that Republicans have proposed to help schools came from allowing districts to shift existing funding for community programming and teacher training to solve their budget woes. Another $50 million would come from forcing the Department of Natural Resources to repay for using schools’ land.

“This is merely a shell game or a transfer of money,” said Sen. Chuck Wiger, a Democrat from Maplewood. “It’s a gimmick.”

The session’s final hours were punctuated with a dramatic flair, as the House attempted a rare override of one of Dayton’s previous vetoes, on a bill reimbursing the local licensing offices that have struggled since the launch of the state’s new driver registration system called MNLARS. It was just the second attempt of Dayton’s eight years in office.

It fell 11 votes short of the two-thirds majority needed to override the governor, with just a few Democrats joining Republicans to support overturning Dayton’s veto.