Gov. Mark Dayton has lately made a mantra of one vow when briefing State Capitol reporters: “I will not call a special session.”
Legislators would do well to take the DFL governor at his word. The 2018 session’s permissible life span ends next Monday; no votes on bills can occur after midnight Sunday. The Republican-controlled Minnesota House and Senate should not expect the governor to allow them additional time for any “do-overs” if the bills they send him this week don’t win his signature.
It’s worrisome that all of the year’s major bills remain unfinished. Still, lawmakers shouldn’t need more time — not if they recognize that the season for partisan showmanship has already expired. It’s compromise time. Here’s what belongs on lawmakers’ must-do list:
• A bonding bill should not be seen as “dessert” to be held back until the session’s final hours for use as leverage to force concessions on other disputes. That risky strategy contributed to the collapse of the bonding bill two years ago. To avoid repeating 2016’s sorry finish, legislators need to regard public works projects as the serious obligation they are — and to see that delay only adds to their eventual cost.
To their credit, the Legislature’s two able capital investment chairs, Rep. Dean Urdahl of Grove City and Sen. Dave Senjem of Rochester, were already working overtime last week to win the DFL votes that will be needed to achieve the three-fifths supermajority a bonding bill requires. Both bodies have advanced bills that authorize $825 million in general-fund-supported debt. That’s only slightly more than half the sum Dayton recommended and too skimpy to meet genuine needs on higher ed campuses, at municipal water treatment plants, in the supply of affordable housing and more.
That said, the House bill’s design is superior. The Senate’s version attempts to spread funds further, but so thinly that some included projects would not get enough funding to proceed. For example: Completing the new visitor center at Fort Snelling in time for the fort’s 2020 bicentennial requires the House bill’s $30 million, not the Senate’s $10 million.
Dayton’s bonding preferences now matter less than those of DFL legislators, who are well led on bonding in the House by 15-term St. Paul Rep. Alice Hausman. They should drive a hard bargain. And they should insist on using general obligation bonds, not funding mechanisms that carry higher interest rates. That possibility, floated last week by House Republicans, would rely on state lottery funds rather than the general fund to service the debt. While that approach would spare the general fund, it’s not in keeping with the conservative principle of meeting the state’s needs at the lowest possible cost.
• A federal tax conformity bill should also pass this year. Both Dayton and Republican legislators will need to rein in their ambitions to make it so. A degree of the requisite restraint was evident Friday in a proposed House-Senate bill, due for conference committee consideration Monday. It wisely omitted a Senate provision for automatic future tax cuts whenever the state experiences a surplus, a position that threatens future fiscal stability. But it also omits an increase in the Working Family Credit, which would extend the bill’s benefits to the lowest-income taxpayers. That gubernatorial priority looks like a key to winning Dayton’s signature.
• Spending measures take a back seat in this, the midpoint of the state’s biennial budget cycle. The state’s $329 million forecast surplus is enough to cover a number of needed measures that have broad bipartisan support but that in several instances have become entangled with more controversial matters.
Legislators should move quickly to free high-priority measures from partisan encumbrances. Rather than plotting to send Dayton one supersized bill, larded with measures he deems repugnant, in the hope that he will sign the whole mess into law, legislators should take a surer route.
They should send the governor separate bills to address the state’s opioid crisis, protect frail elders from abuse at the hands of their caregivers, improve school safety, shore up state employee pension funds and beef up information technology funding, both for the sake of cybersecurity and the resolution of the motor vehicle registration software snafu Minnesotans witnessed last summer.
Two weeks ago, Dayton added one big item to his wish list — $138 million in relief for the state’s school districts, at least 59 of which are planning cuts to cope with budget deficits in 2018-19. Dayton signaled his determination to secure that aid with a two-day school tour and an open letter to Minnesotans.
We’ve advised legislators to respond to schools’ fiscal distress with a more targeted — and less costly — approach than Dayton is recommending. Meeting Dayton at least partway on schools could be key to moving past other sticking points and successfully concluding this session.
The Star Tribune Editorial Board has previously urged Minnesota legislators to reform gun laws , address distracted driving (http://strib.mn/2G7AkdK), assure continued funding of residential mental health facilities for children through mid-2019 (http://strib.mn/2I6gMwe), and adopt new sexual harassment policies for elected officials and staff (http://strib.mn/2vX59Ck).