We wish we could report that the dust settled at the State Capitol on Tuesday after an eventful legislative session, which ended at midnight Monday on constitutional schedule. But the session wasn’t as eventful as it should have been. Gov. Mark Dayton said Tuesday he would veto one vital bill, E-12 education, and other measures are dotted with disappointing provisions that could also meet with a veto stamp.
As for dust — the literal kind — the construction crews that moved in on Tuesday will keep it stirring in and around the 110-year-old People’s Palace for months to come. The Capitol’s reconstruction is due for completion in 2017; only the House chamber is slated to be available for the 2016 session. A special session before then will require an alternate venue.
By leaving so much unsettled, legislators and the governor have assured themselves little respite during the interim and a hefty agenda in a special session and/or next year. They can expect plenty of pressure from pleaders for a share of as-yet uncommitted state revenues in 2016-17, a sum that will hit $1.4 billion when Dayton makes good on the veto he promised Tuesday.
Let the pleading begin. We nominate these pieces of unfinished business for the Legislature’s action in 2016, if not sooner:
• Transportation funding: The inability to reach a bipartisan agreement on a major funding boost for roads and transit ranks as the 2015 Legislature’s biggest shortcoming. If anything, this session worsened the political climate for transportation. With little else affording bragging rights, House Republicans ended the session crowing about stopping a gas tax increase, thereby deepening partisan entrenchment on the issue.
More than two years ago, a commission of experts said that keeping this state’s transportation system functioning at its current level — never mind improvement — would require an additional $1 billion investment per year for the next 20 years. That’s a sum well beyond what can be obtained by repurposing existing taxes. And it swells with each year of neglect.
Lawmakers who want to maintain Minnesota’s mobility no longer have the luxury of being choosy about remedies. A transportation fix requires “both/and” thinking, not “either/or.” We favor both the House GOP proposal to move rental- and leased-vehicle sales tax receipts to transportation accounts and the DFL plan for a boost in gas taxes, registration fees and the metro-area’s transit sales tax.
• Preschool: This can still be the year when Minnesota’s neediest children are assured the benefits of high-quality preschool. But it appears that a special session will be needed to achieve that goal. Dayton said he would veto the E-12 bill, which he deemed inadequate for early learning and other needs, including American Indian schools.
That bill’s enactment can’t wait until 2016. School operations next fall are too dependent on it. Dayton revealed that on Monday, he and House leaders came within $25 million of reaching a deal on the bill’s size and were near agreement on pre-K provisions. We’ll take that as a hopeful sign that an accord is attainable, and continue our call for a major move this year to provide low-income children with more early-learning opportunities.
• Bonding: For the third time since 2004, the Legislature went home without authorizing more state borrowing for building projects. A $107 million bill assembled on the session’s last day ran out of time in the House. As a result, a long backlog of building repairs and requests awaits the 2016 Legislature. That list and continued low interest rates ought to quash any inclination to cap the bill’s size at an arbitrarily low level purely for political messaging purposes. Better that the Legislature’s capital investment committees size the bill to meet as many pressing needs as the state’s debt capacity guidelines allow.
• Taxes: A lot of hopes — not all ones we would endorse — were riding on tax bills that were jettisoned in last week’s leadership negotiations. House Republicans sought a $2 billion, two-year tax cut that, for business, would swell substantially in future years. But they evidently weren’t willing to agree to the DFL price to keep their bill alive.
In 2016, we’d welcome tax cuts targeted at low-income families with young children, measures to hold down property taxes, and a down payment on reform of state business property and income taxes. But our favorite feature in the House and Senate tax bills is one that has become law by default, at least temporarily. Those bills contained an increase in the state’s reserve fund. By not spending $1 billion in forecast 2016-17 state revenue, lawmakers have given the reserve a lift.
• Aid to lowest-income families with children: Given the big forecast sum still available, no excuse exists for continuing a 29-year freeze in the monthly grants paid by the Minnesota Family Investment Program, “welfare” for the lowest-income families with children. MFIP’s average grant has been $347 per month since 1986. Boosting those grants belongs on 2016 must-do lists.
• Legacy Amendment allocations: A popular bill allocating $540 million in earmarked Legacy sales tax proceeds to natural resource preservation, parks, clean water and the arts got trapped in the time crunch. It sailed to a 123-11 vote in the House but did not reach the Senate on time. Chock-full of worthy projects, it deserves to become law ASAP.
Those are the toppers on a long list of unfinished business, which could grow in coming days as Dayton acts on budget bills assembled in the session’s final frenetic days. Some might say leaving this much undone is par for the course for any legislative session in which Republicans and DFLers share control. We’d counter that even with divided government, Minnesotans deserve better — and they will expect better, no matter when or where this Legislature next meets.