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.
A group of regional chambers of commerce in both the Twin Cities and outstate Minnesota came out Wednesday in support of new sources of revenue to pay for road, bridge and transit projects, although the group stopped short of explicitly calling for gas tax or vehicle registration increases.
"Investment in transportation is critical to Minnesota's competitiveness, so we also support an increase in revenue that allows us to properly plan and build a transportation system that will ensure regional competitiveness, vitality and economic growth in our state," read a letter to legislative leaders signed by the presidents or executive directors of regional business groups including chambers of commerce in Minneapolis, St. Paul, Duluth, Mankato and Marshall.
The group did not specify what type of transportation revenue enhancements they would prefer. Gov. Mark Dayton and Senate Democrats are pushing for a new type of per-gallon fuel tax and an increase in vehicle registration fees to fund road and bridge construction, along with a Twin Cities metro-area sales tax increase for transit.
While both Democrats and Republicans at the Capitol support a transportation spending boost between $7 billion and $11 billion over the next decade, divisions have sprung up over how to pay for it. GOP lawmakers have stood in unison against the gas tax proposal and other new revenue sources.
Late last month, an analysis of Minnesota's transportation funding needs, funded in part by the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and Minnesota Business Partnership, argued that the total spending needs have been overstated. The analysis alleged that those spending estimates, which trace to a transportation panel appointed by Dayton, over-estimated the impact of inflation in estimating total costs of upgrading transportation infrastructure.
A House-Senate transportation conference committee started meeting this week. How much to spend on transportation, and where to get the money, is likely to be one of the top discussion points as Dayton and legislative leaders negotiate a final deal to end the session.
The letter to lawmakers from the regional chamber leaders can be read here.
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.
Photo: Rep. Phyllis Kahn, foreground, grabs a turkey burger served up by, from left, Sen. David Tomassoni, Rep. Jeff Backer, Gov. Mark Dayton and House Speaker Kurt Daudt. More photos are in this gallery.
Tuesday's turkey burger grillout on the State Capitol lawn was about more than just a tasty free lunch.
In the wake of continuing devastation from the avian flu that has claimed more than 5.3 million Minnesota birds--most of them turkeys--Willmar Rep. Dave Baker and the House rural caucus led a 600-burger cookout that drew not just lawmakers, state employees and a burger-flipping Gov. Mark Dayton, but also others who made the trip to support Minnesota’s turkey industry.
“It touches my heart. I know it’s affecting a lot of families, so to see all these people supporting us is just amazing,” said Marisa Bocanegra, who traveled from Faribault with her 12-year-old daughter Jasmin Nisbit. Jasmin clutched a handmade sign that thanked midday diners for their support. Her dad, Brian Nisbit, is a quality assurance supervisor at the Jennie-O Turkey Store, which said Tuesday that the bird flu has forced them to cut production and temporarily lay off 233 workers. Bocanegra said her husband is the family’s only source of income, and whether he’ll be among the idled workers remains to be seen.
It’s why Baker, a first-term Republican lawmaker, said the cookout was important.
“Today was really a big day,” he said of the Jennie-O announcement, but added that he is optimistic the industry will recover. As part of its agriculture omnibus bill, the House on Monday passed an additional $6 million to the state’s response efforts, including bolstering unemployment for affected workers.
“Through this whole tragedy that we’re going through, the industry will be stronger and be able to deal with these kind of things in the future with better biosecurity, better plans of responding, so this has been a wake-up call," he said. "I’m so proud of the state House, the Senate, the governor, how everyone has responded to their needs.”
Solidarity aside, the burgers—served with pickles, an option of spicy cheese or cranberry mayo—weren’t half bad either.
“I love it,” Richard Stephens, a retired school district employee from Cottage Grove and the son of turkey farmers, said between the final bites of his burger. The flu, he said, would never scare him from his favorite treat.
“I could eat it 24-7.”
Below: Marisa Bocanegra and daughter Jasmin Nisbit, 12, of Faribault, turned out to show support.