Transportation, bonding fail at end of Minnesota Legislature
Minnesota legislators came to St. Paul with hopes to pass a good many bills, but they failed to approve two major issues, transportation and public works funding, by a midnight Sunday deadline.
The House hurriedly passed the combined measure in the final minutes, but the Senate put on an amendment and there was not enough time to either send it back to the House or remove the amendment, which appears to have killed any chance of adding transportation funding and enacting a public works bill.
In the final day that lawmakers could approve bills, other issues did pass. But overall, the 2016 legislative session ends as with mixed results.
Minnesota Republicans entered the 2016 legislative session with dreams of passing a slimmed down version of their $2.2 billion tax-cut plan that failed in 2015. They got a $258 million tax cut for the next year.
Democrats arrived in St. Paul on March 8 with dreams of requiring employers to take part in a state-run insurance program providing paid leave to new parents and workers taking care of family members. They leave with nothing.
Most lawmakers started the session saying that transportation programs need a $600 million-a-year infusion for a decade. The Sunday night plan that failed at midnight would have provided $600 million in the next year, with no guarantees after that.
Legislators were divided about how much they wanted to spend on public works projects, financed by the state selling bonds, and remained split until the end, when a plan of $990 million — a figure between the $800 million House Republicans wanted and the $1.5 billion Senate Democrats sought — came out about 11 p.m., giving most lawmakers minutes to read it before debate began. It was merged with transportation funding, so both failed together.
That debate was short, and House Democrats shouted to be heard as Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, tried to end debate after a few minutes. The bill passed in the House 91-39, but senators did not pass the bill before midnight, apparently ending chances for bonding this year.
Those issues, and others ranging from expanding broadband high-speed Internet to reducing racial economic disparities left supporters frustrated as legislators ran into a Sunday midnight deadline to pass bills. The racial disparities and broadband issues got slightly more than a third of the money Gov. Mark Dayton wanted.
Early in the session, Iron Range workers received 26 more weeks of unemployment benefits to help counteract a countrywide steel industry crisis. Dayton's call for $25 million to improve pre-kindergarten education was a late-session winner.
Lawmakers made sure counties will get financial help to implement a law requiring vegetative buffers around water and farmers will get a bit of help retrofitting old tractors with safety roll bars.
Sunday night, the House Ways and Means Committee signaled how the session could end. It amended its spending plans, setting up a public works funding bill of $990 million.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, said Senate Democrats wanted new on-going revenue to pump into transportation, but that is not how it worked out late Sunday.
Ways and Means approved putting $300 million in cash into transportation, while borrowing another $300 million. That spending was put in the bonding bill.
Dayton has said he would insist on ongoing funding, but he apparently will not have that option this year. Experts say $600 million a year is needed each year for a decade to bring roads and bridges up to standards.
The Legislature must adjourn Monday, but the state Constitution does not allow lawmakers to pass any bills that day. The House and Senate were expected to listen to speeches by retiring members Monday, with senators planning a party that included past members.
Before the partying could begin, the House and Senate met sporadically throughout Sunday, expected to stretch their work until the midnight deadline.
The House started the final-day work by passing legislation cutting taxes, with senators following. Also, negotiators approved a plan to increase spending $167 million over the existing two-year, $42 billion budget.
The tax bill would cut taxes nearly $260 million in the next year, and twice that in the next two-year budget cycle, although next year's Legislature could change that.
Many of the cuts come in property taxes, House Property Tax Chairman Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, said.
Farmland owners would benefit because they no longer would be charged full taxes when schools approve construction projects. Since farmers were saddled with large property tax increases to fund the projects, they often opposed school bond votes. The change is expected to make it easier for rural districts to do more construction.
Drazkowski said another provision would help small businesses. It eliminates state property tax on the first $100,000 of a business property's value.
Also in the legislation are tax cuts for people saving for college; Mille Lacs Lake-area businesses suffering after the state limited walleye fishing; veterans; tobacco users; college loan recipients; working families and parents who use child care services.
The bill also turns the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board into an advisory-only body. The legislative auditor issued a report saying that the board may violate the state Constitution when it makes spending decisions.
A compromise bill to change the existing budget would spend $35 million to increase high-speed Internet service, $35 million to help reduce economic disparities between black and white Minnesotans and $25 million to expand pre-kindergarten education as part of $167 million in increased general tax spending and about the same amount transferred from other funds.
The House approved the budget bill 95-39 and the Senate 50-16.
The St. Paul Pioneer Press, a Forum News Service media partner, contributed to this story.