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Tracking Minnesota’s political scene and keeping you up-to-date on those elected to serve you

Dayton, legislative leaders say they are close on possible special session deal

Gov. Mark Dayton and legislative leaders on Friday set the parameters of a possible pre-Christmas special session to include tax cuts, a borrowing package for capital improvement projects around the state and financial assistance for many facing skyrocketing health insurance premiums next year.

Dayton met with legislators just hours after state budget officials reported a $1.4 billion budget surplus, which includes about $678 million left unspent in the last legislative session.

The tax and bonding bills are two leftover items from the last legislative session. While legislators approved the tax bill, Dayton vetoed it over a drafting error his office said would cost the state millions of dollars. The Legislature was unable to bridge disagreements over the bonding bill, which failed to pass by the midnight deadline of the session.

The health care problem is a recent one. Dayton and other legislators have been calling for financial relief to pay down expensive insurance premiums for the 125,000 who buy insurance on the individual market but make too much to qualify for federal subsidies.

Dayton and the caucus leaders appeared optimistic that they could strike a special session agreement in the coming days, but many details remain to be worked out.

"Everything moving forward is conditional on being able to resolve those details," Dayton said. House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said he's optimistic a deal can be struck soon. "I feel like I can see it, but we're not quite there yet."

Senate DFL leader Tom Bakk of Cook said he was pleased to see the size of the budget surplus, saying it made possible the special session negotiations.

Dayton said working groups would meet beginning Monday and conclude Wednesday. After that, political leaders will decide whether a special session will occur, likely on Dec. 20.

Liberal Jewish group defends Rep. Keith Ellison in light of criticism of previous comments

WASHINGTON -- Rep. Keith Ellison, who is running for Democratic National Committee chairman and under fire for previous comments he made about Israel by the Anti Defamation League, received praise Friday from the liberal Jewish group J Street which said the criticism amounted to a smear campaign and was threatening of free speech.

"It is time to retire the playook that aims to silence any American official seeking high office who has dared to criticize certain Israeli government policies," J Street president Jeremy Ben-Ami in a statement. "J Street believes that this recurrent process undermines our ability to have open, honest and productive conversations about Israel and the Middle East in our national politics and that it does deep and lasting damage to the American Jewish community."

Ellison has come under pressure for past comments he made as a college student and affiliations with the Million Man March and the Nation of Islam.

Ellison said he distanced himself with Nation of Islam founder Louis Farrakhan after the 1995 March when he felt Farrakhan was better at criticizing people than unifying people. The Nation of Islam has been labeled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Ellison told the Star Tribune: "Any jackass can kick down a barn but it takes a carpenter to build one. Anyone can give a fiery speech but who is going to get out there and get on the ground and build something meaningful in a way that unifies all people."

His staff notes he has garnered endorsements from Democratic party leaders including Sen. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Also endorsing him is Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, who is Jewish and supportive of Israel.

Ellison is in Denver at the Association of State Democratic Chairs meeting, where a number of voting DNC members are gathered. He faces three other candidates --  Ray Buckley, chair of the New Hampshire Democratic Party, Howard Dean, former DNC Chair and former governor of Vermont and Jamie Harrison, chair of the South Carolina Democratic party.