Legislators shouldn’t expect heroes’ welcomes as they head home Monday after the 2016 session’s adjournment. While the 11-week exercise produced a few bright spots, the 2016 Legislature failed Sunday to reach what many Minnesotans considered its top goal — a long-term transportation funding measure.
By operating in secret and pushing their work against the constitutional deadline to an extraordinary degree, legislators left much in doubt in the session’s final hours. They failed to operate with the timeliness and transparency that should be fundamental to a representative body entrusted with a large public purse.
Not until 7:30 p.m., four and a half hours before the deadline, were the contents of a 599-page spending bill revealed. A $995 million bonding bill was said to be coming, but was still unavailable at 9:45 p.m. Closed-door talks among legislative leaders left other legislators guessing about the deals being struck.
Only the tax conference committee finished its work in somewhat timely fashion, with agreement reached Friday. But even that bill was not ready for floor votes until Sunday, and was so rushed that conferees signed the bill before its text had been released to the public.
A conditional veto threat hangs over that bill. Gov. Mark Dayton said Friday that he won’t sign a tax bill unless it’s accompanied by a supplemental budget bill that satisfies his requirements. He’s looking for a package that does not put future state fiscal stability at risk and that funds his priorities, which include early childhood education, beefed-up staffing at the state’s security hospitals, rural broadband matching grants and racial equity efforts.
It would be a shame if the tax bill comes to naught. It isn’t flawless, and at $259 million in relief in fiscal 2017 it drains more from state coffers than we’d like. But it tilts nicely toward lower-income families with young children, Main Street businesses, recent college grads and veterans to produce a more balanced package than either the House or the Senate crafted on their own. The 123-10 vote it generated in the House Sunday attests to the bill’s bipartisan appeal.
The prize in the package is a first-in-the-nation tax credit for former students or their parents who are repaying student loans. It offers a tacit invitation to debt-burdened grads to come to live and work in Minnesota. The credit of up to $1,000 per year includes richer reimbursement for borrowers in teaching or other public-service professions.
Unfortunately, the bill includes a big clunker — a $30 million (through 2019) reduction in taxes on cigarette and tobacco products, primarily through the elimination of automatic inflation adjustments. It’s a measure that likely would not have passed either the House or the Senate had it reached the floors in isolation.
That illustrates why dissatisfaction is growing with the Legislature’s habit of assembling many bills into one murky “omnibus” measure. It’s a practice that’s ripe for legal challenge. It’s one of many gripes legislators ought to hear about the 2016 session in coming days — and in the coming election campaign.