More than a billion dollars in new public spending, tax relief for an assortment of Minnesotans and the public image of the state’s politically divided Legislature are all at stake as Gov. Mark Dayton decides this weekend whether lawmakers should get a second chance at a successful session.
Dayton’s decision is among the most consequential of his second term so far. Communities across the state stand to economically benefit from the construction bonding bill that stalled over a partisan dispute in the final minutes of the regular session a week ago, and the clamor since then by influential interests to salvage it in a special session has been intense.
“I’m open to a special session,” Dayton told the Star Tribune late Friday afternoon, as he prepared for a weekend of plotting next steps in the push and pull between the executive and legislative branches. But he will only call one, he warned, if Republicans agree in advance to boost spending for the University of Minnesota and Twin Cities-based transit programs.
“To me it’s about using whatever leverage I have to correct some serious shortcomings,” Dayton said.
Election-year politics are in play. The entire Legislature is on the ballot this November, many from areas queued up for state dollars spread around by a bonding bill.
If Dayton and legislative leaders can’t set terms for a special session, incumbents — including many members of the House Republican majority who have regularly foiled the DFL governor’s agenda — would be forced to explain to local voters why the Legislature couldn’t finalize funding for that crumbling highway interchange or badly needed water-treatment upgrade.
“We need to do this for the small cities,” said Rep. Jeff Backer, R-Browns Valley. The freshman legislator’s district includes Morris, which in the bonding bill that collapsed last weekend was made eligible for $12 million in public money to make state-mandated improvements to its water treatment plant. If the funds are not in place by the end of June, the project’s $18 million estimated cost are likely to soar, lifting local water bills with them.
“The governor has been a leader on clean water,” said Backer, who in November faces a rematch with the DFLer he unseated two years ago.
The Legislature’s top Republican, Speaker Kurt Daudt, spent the days following the session’s messy end traveling to cities including Morris that are on tap for bonding bill funds to make the case for a special session.
“We’d like to have it sooner than later,” Daudt said. “The longer we wait and the further we stray — it was kind of a fragile negotiation and if you make it too complicated, it could unravel.”
Dayton in the interview was highly critical of how House Republicans handled the bonding bill, their version of which debuted unusually late in the 11-week session. It included more money for road and bridge projects than previous bonding bills. Dayton characterized that as a “fig leaf” from House Republicans trying to make up for the lack of agreement over a more comprehensive transportation package despite two years of negotiations between the GOP and DFL.
“I have a partisan view, I admit, but I really believe this session and the previous session are evidence that divided government does not best serve the interests of a better Minnesota,” Dayton said.
Late last Sunday just before midnight, in the closing moments of the 11-week session, the House in strong bipartisan fashion approved a $1.1 billion bonding bill. About $819 million of those costs would be covered by the state’s debt-backed bonding capacity, with the rest covered by the state’s expected budget surplus.
With only minutes left, the DFL-controlled Senate amended the bill to allow Hennepin County to independently raise $135 million needed as a local match for the planned Southwest Light Rail Transit project — a well-known priority of Dayton and many DFLers. Opposition to that project runs deep among Republicans in St. Paul, and the House had adjourned for the year by the time the Senate ricocheted back the revised bill.
Many of Dayton’s political allies, including influential labor leaders, are calling for a special session. University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler has also asked for one, and he wants the school’s take to be upped.
“My advice to him was drive a hard bargain,” Rep. Alice Hausman, a St. Paul DFLer and veteran of bonding bill politics, said she told Dayton. “He has such a soft heart and he’s going to know there are lots of things at stake. But truly, he is in the power position.”
Only the governor can call a special session. Dayton said this weekend he would prepare a “brief list of my requirements.” He said it would definitely include $67 million for a new health sciences building at the University of Minnesota, which House Republicans kept off the most recent version of the bonding bill.
Daudt told him last Monday there wasn’t room to do it, Dayton said.
“Well, they’ll have to make room,” the governor said. He will also insist on some resolution to the light-rail funding standoff, which he said he believes Republicans oppose primarily for political advantage.
“There will need to be a transit piece if there’s going to be a special session,” Dayton said.
Another requirement: that lawmakers renew a soon-to-lapse, $800,000-a-year tax exemption that the Minnesota High School League uses to fund a charitable foundation benefiting athletes from low-income families.
Dayton has other decisions on his plate this weekend that also have implications for a potential special session. Lawmakers did manage to approve $300 million in new spending on a mix of programs and reduced taxes by $259 million. Some of the spending and tax relief reflect Dayton’s priorities, and could earn his signatures on the bills. But he’s averse to some provisions tucked inside, including a tax break on tobacco products.
Dayton also must decide whether to sign or veto a bill governing how police departments use body cameras on officers, which has provoked disputes between law enforcement groups and activists for civil rights and civil liberties.
Unlike members of the House and Senate, Dayton is not facing voters this fall. There’s little doubt that a restored DFL majority in the House next year would boost Dayton’s chances of accomplishing major unfinished goals in what will be the final two years of his administration.
Some House Republicans at the mercy of the governor’s decision expect to be punished at the ballot box if the session remains unfinished.
“I sure hope the governor calls us back,” said Rep. Dave Baker, R-Willmar, who must defend a House seat that has flipped between the DFL and GOP in each of the past three elections. Baker’s district has $60 million on the line in the bonding bill for improvements to State Highway 23; asked if facing voters without a bonding bill would hurt his chances, Baker replied: “It sure would.”
But that wouldn’t necessarily mean a clean political win for Dayton’s side. The Senate DFL is also defending its majority in November, and many of its potentially vulnerable members also want Dayton to call them back to wrap up the bonding bill.
“It’s an embarrassment not to have this done,” said Sen. Greg Clausen, DFL-Apple Valley. “When you’re not in a major leadership role but you rise or fall on those decisions, to then have to go knock on doors and trying to explain that to your constituents is going to be very difficult. I’m very much in favor and hopeful that we will have a special session.”