This week’s plot at the State Capitol is awfully familiar. Once again, Gov. Mark Dayton and legislative leaders are discussing the start of talks that maybe, perhaps, could produce a special session.
If the latest episode is true to form, a special session is far from assured. But for legislators, the stakes this time are arguably higher than they were last summer, when relief for fishing resorts on Mille Lacs was discussed, or last winter, when the topics were narrowing racial disparities, extending unemployment benefits for furloughed taconite workers and ending a ban on planning for conversion to Real ID. A billion-dollar building-projects bill, the regular session’s unfinished business, is on the line. So is Dayton’s desire for an additional $80 million in spending in the next 12 months. And the season finale of two years of legislative struggle to achieve a multiyear, multibillion-dollar infusion into state, metro and local transportation accounts has yet to be revealed.
One other thing is different about this round of special-session talks: Legislators seem more eager to act than Dayton. They know their failure to pass bonding and transportation bills puts them in a sorry light with the voters — and puts Dayton, who is not on the 2016 ballot, in a position to drive a hard bargain.
That’s what Dayton set out to do Wednesday. He issued an extensive list of spending items, building projects and tax-bill revisions he said legislators must promise to deliver before he will call a special session. It’s a long list — $182 million more in bonding than was in play in the regular session’s final hour; $80 million more in spending in the next year than legislators authorized (and Dayton signed into law Wednesday), plus the correction of an error in the tax bill’s provisions governing gambling proceeds earmarked for U.S. Bank Stadium costs.
Though Dayton said he will demand it all, he has also assigned Lt. Gov. Tina Smith, a seasoned dealmaker, to lead negotiations with the politically divided Legislature. Negotiations imply a willingness to agree to something less. For the sake of all the worthy projects that are in limbo without a 2016 bonding bill, we hope Dayton stays flexible. But we also urge legislators to follow Dayton’s lead in these respects:
•Correct the tax bill. House GOP Speaker Kurt Daudt agrees with Dayton that a drafting error is responsible for an intended tax break for bingo halls being extended to other charitable gambling tax revenues, which help pay debt service on the new U.S. Bank stadium. If uncorrected, the tax bill’s one-word mistake would translate into a $100 million state revenue loss over the next three years and trigger an automatic 10 percent gross-receipts tax on suite rentals at the new arena. Daudt offered Dayton a letter of legislative intent and a promise to correct the errant language as inducement for Dayton to sign the $258 million tax-cutting bill now. But anything related to litigation-prone stadium financing warrants caution. The Legislature should fix the tax bill in a special session.
•Don’t let legislators pick highway project favorites. Dayton is right: “Picking winners and losers according to the discretion of a handful of legislators behind closed doors — instead of basing those decisions on established priorities — is not responsible.”
•Include transit funding, sufficient to continue the build-out of the long-planned rail and bus rapid transit network in the metro area. At Wednesday’s news conference, Dayton signaled that he was open to a number of transit funding mechanisms. We hope the value of the source other U.S. metropolitan areas have chosen — a regional sales tax — will be more clearly seen by legislators in coming days. And we hope Republicans warm to the idea that transit is not a nicety in the metro area, but an essential element in a transportation network that serves the whole state.
•Do better by higher education. Higher education’s importance to the state’s economy is growing. Its share of the state budget should stop shrinking. Dayton is right to insist that the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system receive an operating boost and that the University of Minnesota get the state’s customary two-thirds funding for a new health sciences education building in the Twin Cities.
•Own up to the state’s responsibility at its security hospital in St. Peter and at the Minnesota Sex Offender Program in Moose Lake. Inadequate staffing and facilities in St. Peter have created safety issues for both staff members and patients, and delaying a building project that’s already in progress would add costs.
•Get Fort Snelling ready for its bicentennial in 2020 by funding its new visitors’ center now. For future generations to appreciate the history best told at modern Minnesota’s birthplace, this generation of Minnesotans need to be better stewards of that site.