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Deep into session, Minn. legislators look for starting line

Myron Frans, Minnesota's top finance official, says on Wednesday, April 5, 2017, that Republicans rely on "fuzzy math" for their budget plans. Don Davis / Forum News Service1 / 5
Minnesota Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk of Cook on Thursday, April 6, 2017, looks ahead to budget negotiations after legislators return from a break. With him are other Senate leaders, Sens. Jeff Hayden of Minneapolis and Susan Kent of Woodbury. Don Davis / Forum News Service2 / 5
Minnesota House Speaker Kurt Daudt of Crown disagrees on Wednesday, April 5, 2017, with Dayton administratoin commissioners who said Republican budget plans include "fuzzy math." Don Davis / Forum News Service3 / 5
The newly renovated Quadriga atop the Minnesota Capitol stands watch as Minnesota legislators and Gov. Mark Dayton prepare to work out differences in how to fund the state for two years. Don Davis / Forum News Service4 / 5
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The Minnesota Legislature passed all of its spending legislation in the last couple of weeks, the earliest in memory, but lawmakers just reached the starting line in writing a two-year budget.

As lawmakers start a Passover-Easter break this weekend, they leave behind a few bills they have passed and became law since they arrived Jan. 3 in St. Paul — ranging from their first step toward fixing a health insurance cost crisis to placing a moratorium on the state issuing permits to farmers who mow highway ditches.

Those and most other bills being considered are not the main reason lawmakers are in St. Paul. That would be the budget.

The governor, House and Senate are far apart on how they would spend about $46 billion over the next two years.

Legislators are away from the Capitol until April 18. When they come back, House-Senate conference committees will begin the work of merging budget bills the two bodies have passed. Legislative leaders say they want to include the Dayton administration in those talks so they can send the governor final bills he will not veto.

Relationships make for successful negotiations, and from the outside it looks like House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, and Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton are on different wavelengths. Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, and Dayon appear to be closer.

Dayton's comments on Friday, April 7, about the two top legislative leaders show what he thinks about them:

• "I had lunch with Sen. Gazelka and he and I have established a very good relationship. He very seriously wants to get these matters resolved in the least contentious way possible, get them done up front."

• "I met with Speaker Daudt last week. We had a very cordial lunch, and he hasn't said anything good about me since."

Gazelka plays down talk by the House and administration that makes the budget work look impossible.

"I don't recall a budget that either side agreed with the other side's first offer," the first-year majority leader said. "I think we have a good first offer. .... We are going to work with House Republicans and the governor to find the sweet spot in the middle."

Dayton said his signature on a number of pending bills will depend on whether they contain items he finds "unacceptable." Among those, he said, is legislation that leaves out additional funds to establish optional classes for 4-year-olds. Republicans approved bills that they say give schools more flexibility in helping pre-school children, but schools could use the funds for classes Dayton wants. Overall budget cuts Republicans want at state agencies also are an issue, Dayton said.

"If this Legislature or the majority wants agencies to have their budgets reduced, then they need to be explicit about what they want these agencies not to do," he said.

A Republican mantra is to reduce the size of government to save tax money.

Dayton also opposes some measures that Republicans consider reforms, such as a House plan to remove the state Public Utilities Commission from deciding whether Enbridge energy can reconstruct the Line 3 oil pipeline in northern Minnesota. "I won't let that happen," Dayton said.

The governor seldom threatens a veto, but his chief financial officer, Myron Frans, told reporters that he would recommend most spending bills written by Republicans be vetoed.

"The Legislature's math just does not add up," Frans said, calling it "fake math," "fuzzy math" and "alternative math."

Democrats see several issues with GOP bills.

"There are significant problems with their lack of K-12 education funding, significant (problems) with their lack of development with their investment in higher education," Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, said.

The simple explanation of the difference in Dayton and legislative plans is that Dayton wants to spend more money and Republicans want deep tax cuts.

Daudt, considered a likely governor candidate, complained that Dayton has added a record number of people to public health care programs. "If the governor thinks that is great and is good for prosperity and how Minnesota should operate, I think Minnesotans need to start looking for a new governor." The differences, Frans said, are "reminiscent of 2011." That is when Dayton and legislative Republicans could not agree on a state budget, sending government into a three-week shutdown.

Gazelka, meanwhile, said he remains optimistic work will wrap on on time. "It just feels a little different this year. I get a feeling that people want to get done on time. I think the people want us to do it. I think the House, Senate and governor all realize that will be a positive thing."