The Minnesota legislative session collapsed at midnight Sunday after House and Senate leaders deadlocked on a massively scaled down transportation proposal and a multimillion-dollar public works package.

The dramatic breakdown came after hours of closed-door negotiations and marathon floor sessions to quickly approve more modest issues, like new state spending and a menu of tax cuts.

The final minutes of the session included yelling on the House floor as legislators tried to jam the bill through for a final vote, with little time for amendments or debate. Legislators were given the spreadsheet outlining the included projects less than an hour before the mandatory midnight adjournment time.

The House passed the measure 91 to 39. The Senate tried to tack on a last-minute amendment and send the measure back to the House, but the House adjourned before another vote could be taken, and the session expired.

The latenight deadlock angered House DFL Leader Paul Thissen, who said it was "just a denigration of this institution....This could easily have been avoided had people started talking even three days earlier."

 

The spreadsheet showed authorization for $819 million in bonding for a total of $1.1 billion in spending, with $189 million for higher education, $278 million for transportation, including roads, bridges, railroad improvements; $154 million for water infrastructure projects; $94 million for employment and economic development.

Legislators have spent 11 weeks trying to figure out what to do with the $900 million budget surplus in a pivotal election year when all 201 seats are up for grabs.

Legislators had agreed on a $259 million tax cut bill that passed both houses Sunday and a spending package that would provide new money for prekindergarten, rural broadband Internet and programs to close the wide economic gap between whites and people of color.

The spending agreement had its own share of tax cuts, exempting military pensions from the state income tax, while also giving tax breaks to wealthy investors in early-stage companies and manufactured housing.

Sen. Melisa Franzen, DFL-Edina, emerged bleary-eyed after the Senate approved the tax bill Sunday night, saying she felt trepidation voting for the tax cut package without seeing the proposed spending.

“I’m torn about spending money … without knowing what the rest of the package is going to look like,” Franzen said. “It’s hard to see the entire picture.”

Comity and compromise grew scarce as lawmakers looked at clocks that moved rapidly toward midnight.

Legislators straggled into the House chamber clutching copies of supplemental spending bills as thick as textbooks that they were cramming to finish.

“It’s a helluva way to run a railroad, folks. That’s all I got to say,” said Rep. Tim Mahoney, DFL-St. Paul.

State Sen. Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes, criticized the secretive nature of last-minute deal making.

“I’m frustrated at the process because it cuts Minnesotans out of the deal,” Chamberlain said. “I hate this end of session nonsense. You have big omnibus bills and get a few people in a room getting stuff together that … undermines the democratic process we have.”

As the midnight adjournment deadline loomed, neither the GOP-controlled House nor DFL-controlled Senate had taken up a package of public works borrowing that is normally a staple of even-year legislative sessions, as negotiators struggled to iron out differences.

Meanwhile, the House and Senate did not fund mass transit in the metro area, which could jeopardize about $900 million in federal funding for a proposed light-rail expansion from downtown Minneapolis to Eden Prairie.

A measure to bring the state into compliance with the federal Real ID law — an eventual requirement if residents are to board commercial airlines and enter federal facilities with a Minnesota driver’s license or ID card — also was stymied, with negotiations hung up over the contentious issue of driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants.

House and Senate leaders were able to reach agreement on a hotly debated package to regulate the use of police body cameras. The measure is on its way to the governor’s office for a signature, but community groups have pressed for a veto, saying it is weighted too heavily in favor of police.

Gov. Mark Dayton said nothing publicly Sunday as his staff monitored developments and reviewed bills.

House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, did not make any public appearances, shuttling between negotiations and meeting privately with GOP members.

Daudt walked on to the House floor around 10:30 p.m. for a brief conversation with Minority Leader Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, presumably to discuss the public works bill that needed votes from DFL legislators to pass.

Only Dayton can call the Legislature into special session, and he said Friday he saw no reason to do so, even with so much work left undone.

The most difficult issues were transportation and public works borrowing.

For 18 months, legislators have discussed and debated how to fix and update the state’s 20,000 bridges and 12,000-mile state highway system. Both sides agree on what’s needed: $600 million in new spending each year for a decade.

The two parties were at odds over how to fund it, with Dayton and the Senate DFL calling for a gas tax increase or a steep increase in license tab fees, while the House GOP mostly sought to borrow and use current revenue streams. They also disagreed about mass transit, with House Republicans opposed to state money for metro trains.

House Republicans loaded up their public works proposal with money for roads and bridges, which Democrats objected to.

Because bonding bills leverage state debt to pay for projects, they require a three-fifths “supermajority” to pass. Under the party makeup in the House and Senate, that means both Republicans and DFLers had to chip in votes.

The Real ID impasse was related to a dispute about illegal immigrants. House Republicans wanted to limit the Minnesota Department of Public Safety’s ability to amend its rules beyond whatever is necessary to implement the Real ID program, which would mean it could not make changes allowing undocumented people to have driver’s licenses. The Senate bill did not include the same language.

The spending agreement included new spending on key Dayton priorities: $35 million on rural broadband Internet development, $35 million on closing economic disparities for people of color with another $17.5 million every year going forward, and $25 million on prekindergarten access, with $55 million every year thereafter to help disadvantaged children get ready for school. Dayton had sought much larger amounts for all of these initiatives.

The tax cut measure passed both houses overwhelmingly Sunday. The compromise package of tax cuts included breaks for farmers, business, students with debt and other interest groups. The deal between the House GOP and the Senate DFL would cost a total of $259 million in the current budget year and about $550 million in the next two-year budget cycle.

Rep. Greg Davids, R-Preston, who worked for 18 months to craft a tax-cut package that could pass, hailed the agreement: “I’ve continued to say, ‘Don’t stop believing,’ and today I’m proud that we can deliver significant tax relief for Minnesota families.”

patrick.coolican@startribune.com
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