Leading Minnesota lawmakers agreed Thursday on a $373 million list of debt-backed construction projects that will get a vote in the upcoming special session, a sign of progress in an ongoing budget stalemate at the Capitol but not yet enough for Gov. Mark Dayton to call the Legislature back to St. Paul.
Representatives for the DFL governor and legislative leaders from both parties continued private meetings and communications Thursday in pursuit of an overall state spending deal. By late afternoon, the final deal was still out of reach.
"We're not all the way there yet. We are getting closer," said GOP Speaker Kurt Daudt, echoing his recent assurances that the lingering impasse would be resolved soon. But the two sides have yet to produce final, detailed agreements on any of the bills Dayton vetoed earlier: jobs and energy; environment and natural resources; and even K-12, where leaders reached agreement on an overall spending target Monday, but with no details on how that money was to be spent.
Daudt on Thursday pushed for a special session, but the governor's office remained silent on timing. Only Dayton can officially summon lawmakers back to the Capitol — a move that typically requires signed agreements by both sides on the scope and duration of any special session.
Dayton has said that he will not call a special session until Republicans agree to repeal language in a separate bill — which Dayton already signed — that would vastly diminish the role of the state auditor by allowing counties to obtain private audits.
Daudt said Thursday that if Dayton would withdraw his ultimatum, he would guarantee that the House would revisit the issue in 2016, but would go no further.
In recent days, Lt. Gov. Tina Smith has been the chief envoy between Dayton and Daudt. She re-entered Daudt's office late Thursday afternoon. Asked whether a declaration of a special session was likely soon, she said: "That's up to the governor and the speaker." Daudt had not spoken with Dayton since last Friday, when several days of private talks took a negative turn, according to later remarks by Dayton.
But late Thursday, Daudt and Dayton re-engaged as the speaker headed to the governor's residence, where he met with Dayton directly.
The new bonding bill, which was hammered out a day earlier and finalized early Thursday, amounts to a heftier public works spending infusion than previously seemed likely, but still less than half what Dayton had proposed: about $827 million in projects. Both House GOP and Senate DFL leaders spent much of the regular session downplaying the prospects for a sizable bonding bill.
On the last night of the session last month, the Senate passed $247 million in total bonding in the very final minutes before adjournment, too late for the House to take up the bill.
That $247 million package has now swelled to $373 million. It includes $140 million in highway bonds for an Iron Range-area project that involves relocating a portion of Hwy. 53 near the city of Virginia. It also includes $59 million for projects on higher education campuses, $26 million in additional funds for the restoration of the Capitol, $24 million for flood prevention efforts in parts of the state, $32 million for transportation projects, $19 million for a water pipeline expansion, and a number of smaller spending initiatives.
"It's a nuts and bolts, infrastructure, get-stuff-done kind of bill," said Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, who chairs the House committee that assembles the bonding bill. Though it's considerably more than Republicans initially sought, Daudt called the project list "lean and mean."
One controversial provision has been removed: $7.2 million for a 30-stall parking garage that was a priority for Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook.
"I think that was the wrong decision to have that in the first bill," said Sen. LeRoy Stumpf, DFL-Plummer, who chairs the Senate's bonding committee.
Stumpf said DFLers wanted more bonding, but agreed to the current level, believing that Republicans would go no higher.
"The biggest disappointment is what I would call a missed opportunity for a larger bill," Stumpf said. "That's based on the fact that interest rates are very low and there's a pent-up demand for taking care of public buildings and facilities and parks."
Bonding bills require three-fifths majorities in both the House and Senate. Torkelson said representatives of both Senate Republicans and the House DFL were brought into the final negotiations and had signed off on the deal. House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, said he expects significant support from House DFLers for the bill.