WASHINGTON -- Sen. Al Franken said Monday he will not sit in the chamber during Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's speech to Congress Tuesday, while his Democratic colleague Sen. Amy Klobuchar said she will be there.
In an e-mail, Franken said the speech had "unfortunately become a partisan spectacle."
The Israeli prime minister, amid his own re-election campaign,accepted an invitation by GOP House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to address a joint session of the Republican-led Congress. The two Republican leaders did not check with the White House or the State Department -- considered a breach of protocol.
Netanyahu is expected to talk about his opposition to talks the United States is having with Iran about its nuclear program. Obama is not expected to meet with Netanyahu when he is in town.
"I'd be uncomfortable being part of an event that I don't believe should be happening," said Franken. "I'm confident that, once this episode is over, we can reaffirm our strong tradition of bipartisan support for Israel."
Franken joins Democratic Reps. Betty McCollum and Keith Ellison, who said earlier this month they would boycott the speech.
Republican Reps. Tom Emmer, John Kline and Erik Paulsen said they will be there, as will Democrat Reps. Rick Nolan, Tim Walz and Collin Peterson.
Top leaders in the Minnesota House and Senate have proposed creating a legislative budget office to provide legislators "nonpartisan, accurate, and timely information on the fiscal impact of proposed legislation."
The bills, introduced Monday, come after Republicans late last week questioned a report issued just hours ahead of a floor vote on a GOP-sponsored bill that would revise teacher seniority rules that guide layoffs.
The report, known as a fiscal note, was prepared by the Department of Education and approved by the Minnesota Management and Budget Office (MMB).
Under the current structure, fiscal notes are prepared by agencies who would be affected by proposed legislation. It is then approved by MMB. Lawmakers from both parties have in the past questioned analysis, raising questions of partisanship.
It would require that state departments and agencies, as well as the state Supreme Court, provide information to the proposed Legislative Budget Office.
(This post has been updated.)
A Republican-allied national political consulting firm is demanding the Minnesota Republican Party pay back more than $200,000 in overdue bills related to last year's election.
"We did work on behalf of the party," Peter Valcarce, founder and chairman of Salt Lake City-based Arena Communications, wrote in an email to state GOP Chairman Keith Downey. "That work was performed based upon the good faith belief that monies which had been deposited and budgeted for party mail in support of Mike McFadden and Stewart Mills would be promptly paid to us."
Valcarce, who sent the email last Monday, confirmed its legitimacy in a phone call. Valcarce said Monday that Downey responded by promising to deliver a repayment plan by the end of the day this Monday.
In an interview, Downey said the state GOP has paid up "about 80 percent of the vendor invoices" related to the 2014 campaign. "We're confident everyone is going to be paid everything they're owed," he said.
In all, Downey said, the party has covered 90 percent of campaign 2014 costs. Of those vendors waiting to be paid, he said, about 20 percent of the total payment has yet to be made.
A major focus of Downey's chairmanship of the state party has been to restore financial stability to a party that teetered near bankruptcy in recent years. He is running for a second two-year term as state party chairman at a party gathering on April 11.
"We're on a sound financial footing," Downey said.
Valcarce's email to Downey carries an angry tone at times. "Claims that 'financial obligations have been met' and the like speak volumes." He later wrote: "We will continue to explore all options regarding recovering the monies owed to us."
In the phone interview, Valcarce called the situation unusual.
"It's the first time I've taken a step like this with a state party in the almost 20 years I've been in business," he said.
Downey downplayed the significance of the overdue bills, and the harsh tone by fellow Republican political operatives. "Vendor communications are typically in private rather than public," he said.
Democrats and Republicans at the Capitol agreed Friday that Minnesota's projected $1.9 billion budget surplus is great news for the state, but there was considerably less agreement on what to do with it.
"Today is good news for Minnesotans," said House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, echoing comments by Gov. Mark Dayton and DFL legislative leaders.
But, where Dayton and DFL allies suggested greater spending on areas like education and transportation, the GOP's emphasis was as-yet-unspecified tax relief -- and the argument that Dayton now should jettison his proposal to raise state taxes on gasoline for transportation projects.
"I think this surplus means Democrats can stop talking about a gas tax in St. Paul," Daudt said. That's after Dayton said just a few minutes earlier that he intended to proceed with that proposal, which involves a new, 6-percent-per- gallon tax on gas at the wholesale level. Daudt said a portion of the surplus should be spent directly on rebuilding roads and bridges.
Daudt was elusive about what kind of tax relief Republicans might pursue. But he suggested at least $900 million, or about half the new surplus figure, should be returned to taxpayers. Whether that might come in the form of wide-reaching relief, like an income or sales tax cut or rebate, or more targeted relief through tax credits or carve-outs to smaller subsets of taxpayers, he wouldn't say.
"Anything is on the table," Daudt said.
Various Republican lawmakers have already introduced bills tending toward the latter approach, with tax relief for businesses meant to promote new job creation, tax relief for farmers and other proposals.
Still, it was clear Republicans have their eyes on spending some portion of the surplus. Besides roads and bridges, Daudt and other GOP leaders expressed an interest in boosting state payments to nursing homes and spending more on schools, among other possible priorities.
"We will be proposing spending but it will be spending targeted at results," said Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie.
As new spending requests from interest groups flooded in via press release, Democratic legislative leaders said the new money available should be focused toward programs that aid working families.
"We hope to hear the priorities of communities across the state," said Senate Deputy Majority Leader Jeff Hayden, DFL-Minneapolis.
The state's budget office on Friday reported that Minnesota's projected budget surplus grew to $1.9 billion, up $832 million from a previous projection, setting the final stage for budget negotiations at the Capitol.
The Minnesota Management and Budget Office, which publishes the twice-yearly budget and economic forecast, attributed the nearly doubling of the budget surplus to an improvement in the state's labor market, lower gas prices and a stronger U.S. dollar.
Officials said that since the November budget forecast, revenues are projected to rise an additional $616 million, or 1.5 percent. Projected spending, based on current law, is down $115 million, or 0.3 percent.
"Today's news is very good news, over the last few years, we have righted the ship," said Myron Frans, the recently appointed budget commissioner. In recent years, “we were facing large deficits as we began the budget process. By focusing on balanced budget proposals, we’ve paid back our schools, enhanced strong revenues for the state… we’ve carefully managed our state budget."
He went on: “Minnesota is truly a success story. We have a balanced and diverse economy. And we have a growing economy.”
Friday’s economic forecast showed improvements in the national and state economies that are expected to drive higher wage growth and an uptick in household formations, said state economist Laura Kalambokidis.
Higher consumer confidence nationally “is buoying consumer spending, which is the largest driver of the U.S. outlook,” Kalambokidis said.
Gov. Mark Dayton told reporters that the surplus, which he credited to the state’s well-performing economy, should be used to invest in education and transportation, his two main priorities. Though he’s not opposed to offering tax cuts as Republicans are putting forth, he said spending on schools and the state’s infrastructure would be a way to spur future economic development.
“Inevitably, there will be another national economic slowdown or downturn, and Minnesota’s economy will be affected like everyone else’s,” he said. “Our budget surplus will disappear, so I propose that we invest our collective good fortune in our collective better future.”
Friday’s revised figure will provide the framework with which legislators will craft their respective budget proposals. Dayton has already proposed a $42-billion budget, with the majority of new spending earmarked for education. He said Friday that his revised budget will call for an additional $444.2 million in spending to fund his legislative priorities.
He will present his revised proposal in early March.
DFL legislators said the surplus will provide additional money to fund their priorities, which include universal pre-kindergarten, a child-care tax credit similar to Dayton’s and increasing the state’s contribution to schools by boosting the per-pupil funding formula.
Republican legislators meanwhile are calling for much of the surplus to be returned to taxpayers. They also oppose a separate $11-billion transportation proposal by Dayton which calls for new sources of revenue, including a wholesale gas tax and an uptick in the metro-area sales tax .
This is a developing story. Check back later for updates and more details.