Top legislative leaders met privately for about two hours on Wednesday afternoon, trying to strike a deal on state spending levels that will allow them to wrap up the legislative session.
GOP House Speaker Kurt Daudt and Majority Leader Joyce Peppin, DFL Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, and several other key lawmakers and staff members joined in the meeting in Daudt's office. Bakk said afterward that the group "made some headway" but also acknowleged that a final agreement on spending levels for 2015-16 still appears a ways off.
Asked whether the group was close to a total spending figure, Bakk replied, "I don't think we are."
DFL senators and Gov. Mark Dayton want to spend about $43 billion, while House Republicans are just under $40 billion plus about $2 billion in tax cuts. Daudt did acknowledge earlier in the day that Republicans would likely have to retreat from that full amount in order to compromise with DFLers.
Bakk said the group would resume discussions later Wednesday evening. Lawmakers have until the end of the day on Monday, May 18, to finish assembling the state budget, otherwise risking a special session.
House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, expressed confidence today that legislative leaders and Gov. Mark Dayton will be able to come to an agreement on a two-year budget before the May 18 adjournment date.
Daudt and Dayton will meet Thursday and will celebrate the opening of fishing season this weekend with Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook. "I could certainly have it wrapped up this afternoon. I've said that every day now for a week," said Daudt, the first-term speaker.
Daudt said he recognized the realities of divided government but needs some movement from Dayton and Bakk.
"Somewhere in the middle, at least. If we're not in the middle, we're probably going to be here past the end of session," he said. Daudt then noted that the middle of the House' s $2 billion tax cut plan and the Senate's $460 million tax bill bill would be between $1.2 and $1.3 billion. The parties are also far apart on spending and a number of policy issues related to environmental regulation and other matters.
Dayton replied that a $1 billion tax cut means that money "won't be available for things, some of which I think are vitally important. Ask people in Minnesota, do you want $250 for your family, $20 per month for two years, or do you want safe, clean drinking water? I think most people would opt for the latter."
Dayton said the odds of the Legislature finishing by the May 18 adjournment date are 50-50.
"I'm concerned because of the distance we're apart," Dayton said, "and wondering whether there is the will is there to get it resolved."
On one matter, Daudt and Dayton are in agreement. Both said the deadline is a good idea because it forces the Legislature to get its work done, in contrast to the United States Congress.
The committee overseeing the restoration of the Minnesota state Capitol approved more projects today that were not part of the original $272.7 million plan.
The total new costs, some of which included unforeseen engineering problems with the project, are $34 million, bringing the total to roughly $307 million.
Among the projects approved Wednesday by the bipartisan State Capitol Preservation Commission are modifications to Aurora Ave. for $2.4 million; $400,000 for reopening the South Loggia, which is a balcony; about $900,000 for decorative painting; $100,000 for a bus loading plan; and $6.2 million contingency fund for security.
The Legislature will have to appropriate the money.
Gov. Mark Dayton defended the spending, saying the Capitol restoration is a project for the next century, and that Minnesotans would regret not spending a little extra to make the project live up to its billing and potential.
Two political appointees of Gov. Mark Dayton on Tuesday survived confirmation votes in the Minnesota Senate, despite objections by Republican legislators.
The DFL-led Senate voted 35 to 22 to confirm Commerce Commissioner Mike Rothman, first appointed to the post in 2011. State senators voted 38 to 22 to confirm Adam Duininck as chairman of the Metropolitan Council. He has served on the 17-member Met Council since 2011 and was appointed by Dayton as chair in January.
Rothman drew particular fire from Republican senators, who singled him out for the Commerce Department’s response to allegations of overspending by a Minneapolis nonprofit charged with helping low-income residents. He also faced criticism over how the Commerce Department reported rate increases in MNsure, the state’s health care insurance exchange.
“His fingerprints are all over MNsure,” said Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, who opposed Rothman’s confirmation. While Gazelka praised some changes made during Rothman’s tenure, such as beefing up the department’s anti-fraud efforts, Gazelka said Rothman has “made a couple of major missteps.”
Gazelka and other Republicans blamed Rothman for the exit of PreferredOne from MNsure, after the Star Tribune reported last fall that the Commerce Department in 2013 asked the Golden Valley insurer to consider lowering its initially proposed rates. They also criticized the choice by the agency to report 2015 rate increases as a straight average of rates from the returning insurers, even though PreferredOne accounted for nearly 60 percent of MNsure enrollees when it departed from the state exchange.
“That is absolutely misleading,” said Sen. Sean Nienow, R-Cambridge.
The Commerce Department has steadfastly defended its handling of Community Action of Minneapolis, the shuttered nonprofit that state officials said had misspent $800,000 in taxpayer dollars. Rothman said late last year that the department immediately imposed corrective action in 2012 when it learned Community Action had doled out excess state dollars for its energy-assistance program.
Rothman last year also defended the reporting of an average 4.5 percent hike in MNsure premiums. Some experts said a weighted average would be more accurate because it would take into account the percentage distribution of enrollees across the returning insurance carriers, whose rates vary. Calculated that way, the increase in MNsure premiums for 2015 is not 4.5 percent, but 11.8 percent.
Debate over Duininck’s confirmation included accusations of cronyism by Sen. David Osmek, R-Mound, because Duininck is married to Dayton’s chief of staff.
Sen. Chris Eaton, DFL-Brooklyn Center, rejected those accusations.
“I find it a little offensive when someone is objected to … because of their spouse,” she said. “It’s not unusual that two people dedicated to public service would end up together.”
The Met Council, which oversees the strategic growth of the seven-county metro area, including its parks, wastewater system, housing and public transportation network, has faced calls over the years to change how board members are selected. Members are currently appointed by the governor, but at least four bills pending in the Legislature seek to change that.
Photos at top: At top, Commerce Commissioner Mike Rothman in 2013. Below, Adam Duininck testified at his confirmation hearing this month. (Glen Stubbe/Star Tribune)
House legislators on Monday voted 89 to 37 to allow farmers to cultivate industrial hemp in an amendment to the agriculture budget bill.
The measure, put forth by Rep. Mary Franson, R-Alexandria, and Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, was adopted despite objections that it could lead to the cultivation of marijuana.
Supporters of the measure sought to dispel such concerns, arguing that hemp fibers have many acceptable uses in paper, clothing and textiles, among other uses. Cultivation of marijuana would still be illegal.
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