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Continued: Session-ending deal could still be in the cards

  • Article by: BAIRD HELGESON , Star Tribune
  • Last update: April 23, 2012 - 6:14 AM

Fresh life for a Minnesota Vikings stadium proposal and a raft of new GOP-led building projects have reignited hopes of a session-ending deal at the Capitol.

House action late Friday to boost its bonding bill by $220 million is being seen by top administration officials as a hopeful sign that a larger deal can be struck between the GOP-led Legislature and the DFL governor.

"I expect them to be responsive to my priorities and I will be responsive to them," said Gov. Mark Dayton.

But a deep disagreement between Dayton and Republican legislative leaders over job creation is still threatening to unravel the chances for a deal this session.

It remains far from certain that either the nearly $1 billion stadium or a sizable bonding bill can pass the Legislature. It took a personal visit from National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell to revive the stadium bill on Friday, and enthusiasm remains low among rank-and-file GOP lawmakers for big spending commitments.

The months of stalemate are the latest proof that the deeply polarized political climate that led to a three-week government shutdown last summer has not abated. With no budget deficit to wrestle down this year, Dayton and a growing chorus of legislators say they prefer to adjourn early without major victories rather than bash each other for another month and limp away with no agreement.

"We can respectfully disagree and conclude," Dayton said.

Legislative insiders long expected Republicans to use Dayton's desire for a robust bonding bill and a Vikings stadium as a key bargaining chip for big GOP initiatives, like ending teacher tenure and tapping budget reserves for corporate tax relief.

But Dayton and his administration say the stadium has never been part of negotiations on a final deal. The stadium proposal is a complex political project that lacks the clear partisan alliances conducive to political wheeling and dealing. In this rare instance, fiery DFL Rep. Ryan Winkler finds himself on the side of Tea Party Republicans who oppose a taxpayer-funded stadium.

With legislators edging toward the final days of the session, the fight is rapidly coming down to Dayton's demand for a larger bonding package and Republicans' desire for deeper business tax reductions.

Sources say Dayton told Republican legislative leaders early in the week that he refused to tap the state's budget reserves to pay for millions of dollars in business tax cuts.

The governor's insistence leaves only a sliver of the state's budget to fight over: $38 million. Dayton and Republicans had already agreed to use about $18 million to buy back health care reductions from last year, including money for veteran funerals and to buy bulletproof vests for police.

Dayton told Republicans the remaining money could be used for tax breaks for investors in startup companies and to spur investment in research and development -- a fraction of what the GOP and Minnesota business groups had sought.

That may leave Republican leaders too little to persuade their more fiscally conservative members to vote for a larger bonding bill unless Dayton can bend on significant business tax reductions.

It was after Dayton dug in on tax cuts that the House voted down a modest $221 million bonding bill to restore the state's aging Capitol.

House Speaker Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, dismissed the failure of the Capitol investment bill as a minor bump, and says he is still interested in working a deal with the governor for deeper tax cuts.

"It is important to us," Zellers said Friday.

But, in a move that antagonized the administration, Republicans last week began ramming through bills Dayton is sure to veto. One measure encourages people to report undocumented immigrants to authorities. Another would require a doctor's presence whenever a woman takes a pill to end a pregnancy.

In a final show of political gamesmanship, Republicans added Dayton's request for money for veteran funerals and bulletproof vests to a bill that could restrict the overall use of other federal money, a measure the governor insisted he will veto.

That maneuver prompted Dayton to issue a sternly worded letter "to express my very strong opposition."

GOP dilemma

The size of the bonding bill is tearing at GOP unity even as leaders look to hold on to their majorities in the November election.

Bonding bills are not required by law, but they have become almost a biennial birthright for decades. Governors and legislators in both parties use them to build roads, bridges and buildings -- and sometimes use local projects to impress voters back home.

The last time the Legislature and the governor failed to pass a bonding bill in a non-budget year was 2004, when Republicans controlled the state House and GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty was in office. The next election, Republicans suffered major losses in the House, narrowing their once sizable 28 member majority to a whisker-thin two votes.

A powerful faction of Republicans say it might not be politically possible to pass a bonding bill close to what Dayton wants.

"There's no appetite at all," said Sen. Mike Parry, R-Waseca. "There remains a deep divide in the Republican Party over the bonding bill" and whether it can get any larger.

The herky-jerky week at the Capitol has left legislators from both parties frustrated, ready to head for the doors.

Rep. Jean Wagenius, DFL-Minneapolis, emerged from an elevator midway through a week of long days and late nights.

"We are just treading water," she said.

Staff writer Rachel E. Stassen-Berger contributed to this report. Baird Helgeson • 651-925-5044

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