A marathon legislative debate continued to grip the Minnesota Legislature on Sunday as Democrats edged closer to passing what stands to be a dramatic expansion of union power in the state.

Amid thundering chants of “We’re still here,” House members began the debate in the wee hours Sunday morning, breaking for a few hours after dawn, then dragging themselves back to engage in some of the most fiery debate of the session.

“This is nothing more than union payback at the cost of low-income families,” said Rep. Peggy Scott, R-Andover.

Democrats engaged GOP rivals in a point-by-point debate on more than 100 amendments that is expected to stretch 17 hours and had not wrapped up by press time.

“Society does not value the work or the labor provided to the children or the work provided to take care of the elderly,” said Rep. Tom Anzelc, DFL-Balsam Township. “Yes, workers should have a chance to decide for themselves whether or not they wanted to bargain collectively.”

The unionization debate is now the ribbon threading legislators through the final hours before Monday night’s mandatory adjournment. House members broke from the debate periodically to address crucial budget and taxing measures, but were expected to return to the union fight for another all-night session. Bleary-eyed legislative leaders also were holding last-ditch meetings behind the scenes, trying to cobble together a stripped-down state borrowing package.

With velocity increasing and time running short, Democrats began ditching hotly debated measures that were gumming up the chances for a timely end. Raises for legislators, a new metro sales tax and a gas tax hike were all left for dead by Sunday night.

DFL legislative leaders cut a budget deal with Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton over the past week and are racing to pass billions of dollars in spending measures that adhere to that agreement.

The Senate granted final passage to a $15.7 billion education funding bill that will give most parents access to free, all-day kindergarten beginning next year.

The 41-26 vote sent the measure to Dayton for his signature. The proposal is the largest share of the state budget and a top priority of DFL leaders.

The bill includes $485 million in new education spending and $40 million to boost scholarships for lower-income families who want to send their children to high-quality preschools, a $40 million increase in special-education aid, and an increase in basic classroom funding.

Democrats are also ending the high-stakes high school graduation tests known as the GRAD tests, and are raising the age at which students can drop out to 17 from 16.

“This is a great bill that has reform, puts us on a path for each Minnesota student to be successfully ready for college and career as part of the world’s best workforce,” said Sen. Chuck Wiger, DFL-Maplewood, chair of the E-12 Finance Division.

Republicans accused Democrats of throwing money at a broken system.

“When are we going to get down the business of making sure we are educating kids?” responded Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie. “When are we going to get off the idea that somehow spending money equates to that?”

Eyeing Capitol repairs

Legislative leaders met privately, seeking a last-minute deal on a state-backed borrowing proposal, which Democrats say will create thousands of jobs.

State borrowing requires a larger majority than normal bills; Republicans defeated an $800 million proposal on Friday.

Democrats are now weighing a smaller bill focusing on money to refurbish the State Capitol, a measure that a handful of crucial Republicans could find appealing.

“In the last 20 hours of session, anything is possible,” said House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown.

Sunday’s pouring rain caused a Capitol tunnel to spring a leak, with water pouring from the ceiling. On the House floor, members said the soggy floor served as a fresh reminder of the need for Capitol renovations.

In another last-minute twist, Dayton sent a letter to Senate leaders Sunday afternoon asking them to reject the confirmation of Tax Court Judge George Perez, whom Dayton had reappointed.

Dayton said that a week ago a review panel found that Perez regularly missed the three-month deadline for issuing opinions and falsified dates to hide the delays. The panel recommended censure and suspension without pay for nine months. Perez’s attorney said he will seek a lesser penalty.

“Had I known about the board’s findings, I would not have reappointed him,” Dayton said.

Debate gets testy

The showdown over the unionization vote is emerging as a defining battle of the session, with Republicans calling it a brazen power grab by unions with Democrats solely in power at the Capitol.

Unions are looking to organize more than 21,000 home child-care workers and home-health aides who get reimbursements from the state.

Unions argue that years of reductions in aid payments under GOP control have left them nowhere else to turn except to organize and fight for better reimbursement rates.

But the measure also would give the unions thousands of new dues-paying members — and millions in new revenue — at a time when unions nationally are struggling to find members.

In a stunning flash of testiness during the debate, Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, called out to DFL House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis: “Are you waiting for AFSCME to vote on this bill?”

During the debate, Eliot Seide, executive director of AFSCME Council 5, leaned over the railing from the gallery above, surveying the deliberations.

Democrats in the House believed they have the votes to pass the measure, but Republicans were determined to make it an exhaustive debate.

“Child care is a tough, tough business,” said Rep. Bob Barrett, R-Lindstrom. Unionization “is going to cost them more. What’s the benefit?”

Democrats stressed that state-paid child-care workers and home health aides don’t have to unionize if the bill passes.

They would merely have until 2017 to decide whether to organize.

“The choice is simple,” DFLer Anzelc said.

If you don’t want to participate, “don’t take the government money.”