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Budget reaction shows negotiation difficulty

Lobbyists and others are silhouetted Tuesday, May 2, 2017, in the Minnesota Senate Building. Many people were hanging around hallways as much of the activity was occuring in private meetings after most conference committees wrapped up. Don Davis / Forum News Service1 / 3
It was a quiet day around the Minnesota Capitol Tuesday, May 2, 2017. A few conference committees met, but visitors saw little action. Don Davis / Forum News Service2 / 3
It is spring, so the Minnesota Capitol is a destination for school tours, like this one on Tuesday, May 2, 2017. A few House-Senate conference committees met Tuesday, but other action was in private meetings. Don Davis / Forum News Service3 / 3

ST. PAUL — Complaints that are pouring in about funding the Republican-controlled Minnesota House and Senate propose give an insight into the distance lawmakers stand from Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton whenever final negotiations begin.

Many of the complaints come from Dayton commissioners and people who support his budget plan.

Take, for instance, higher education spending. The GOP plan calls for $3.2 billion to be spent in state taxpayer money in the next two years, a $125 million increase.

However, the University of Minnesota president said, the funding is far from what his school needs.

"This level of funding means students will pay more, research initiatives will be compromised and our contribution to Minnesota will be lessened," President Eric Kaler said.

House Higher Education Chairman Bud Nornes, R-Fergus Falls, had said he hoped that the university could keep tuitions static, but Kaler's statement indicates that would not happen. The Legislature does not have authority to require a University of Minnesota tuition freeze.

For the Minnesota State college and university system, the Republican plan requires a tuition freeze in the next academic year and a 1 percent tuition cut the next year for the system's colleges and a freeze at universities.

Kaler's comments were similar to those Republicans are hearing about many of their bills, legislation they say is needed to keep taxpayer costs within reason.

Legislative leaders had promised to wrap up their budget plans Monday, May 1, but several conference committee meetings were held Tuesday and the education funding panel hoped for a Tuesday night resolution as the final panel to meet.

House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, key representatives and staff walked a block to the Minnesota Senate Building Tuesday afternoon and met with Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa. Their goal was to set up budget negotiations with Dayton.

Gazelka and Daudt set Thursday as their goal to finish budget talks, and Daudt said he still hopes that work can be finished this week.

The speaker echoed his committee chairs when he added: "We need to governor engaged in the process to get there."

Chairs in most conference committee meetings have complained that the Dayton administration "has not been engaged" in budget work and repeatedly asked his commissioners to get involved.

Dayton's office, on the other hand, said the governor, Lt. Gov. Tina Smith and commissioners have met 1,676 times with legislators since the session began in January. Dayton and his commissioners also sent lawmakers 190 pages of letters detailing what they would like to see changed in bills.

The Legislature must adjourn by May 22, a state Constitution requirement. A budget deal must be in place by July 1, when the new budget cycle begins, or there would be a partial state government shutdown.


Among things legislative leaders need to find out from Dayton is what items in the massive overall bills would cause him to veto them.

For instance, a jobs and energy bill contains a provision Dayton vetoed in March when it was presented as a stand-alone bill is back in a finance measure. It would remove Public Utilities Commission oversight of municipal and cooperative electric utilities.

While it is not clear if Dayton would veto the jobs and energy bill over that provision, he has said he would reject any bill containing a delay or change to his signature clean-water legislation to require plant buffers, or approved alternatives, between cropland and water. Such a measure is embedded in an environment bill.

Besides the buffer changes, the environment bill does not provide enough money, Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Landwehr told House and Senate negotiators. He said a lack of money would force him to lay off 100 employees.

A provision dealing with the state use of a controversial western Minnesota prison was updated Tuesday.

The House-Senate agreement says the state corrections commissioner may not expand the capacity of existing male prisons or build a new facility without first giving the Legislature an outside appraisal of the privately owned Prairie Correctional Facility in Appleton.

The provision is the latest language that began last year as a requirement that the state lease the private prison facility. Earlier this year, it was altered to require Appleton be used is the corrections commissioner felt there was a need for more prison capacity.

Dayton has opposed using Appleton and has threatened to veto a bill requiring its use, but has not said he would veto a bill containing the appraisal language.

Other legislative developments include:

• A House-Senate state government finance conference committee Tuesday approved $10 million that could lead to new veterans' homes in Bemidji and-or Montevideo. "This is positive step and I hope to see it enacted in the end, but we also know things remain subject to change as budget negotiations continue between the Legislature and the governor," Rep. Matt Bliss, R-Pennington, said.

• Supporters of expanding Twin Cities light rail got mixed messages this week. While a federal bill seemed to put a southwest light rail on track, the House-Senate budget deal forbids the project from moving ahead without specific legislative approval, and Republicans in charge oppose it.

• The biggest tax cut in the House-Senate tax bill would be $236 million to reduce Social Security beneficiaries' income taxes. Other tax breaks include those to support school construction charged to farmland and to people paying off student loans.

• Chief Justice Lorie Gildea of the Minnesota Supreme Court said she is disappointed a finance bill does not courts money at the level requested. "This proposed budget would leave our district courts without enough judges to manage a rising caseload in an effective and timely manner..." she said. "It would put the constitutional rights of Minnesotans at risk by harming our ability to find qualified court interpreters or pay for psychological examinations of court participants."

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.