Gov. Mark Dayton scolded state legislators Monday for letting their session end without a compromise on more than a billion dollars in proposed spending on transportation and public works bonding projects, but he was noncommittal about whether he’d summon them back this year to try again.
“It’s disappointing to say the least that the session ended without a transportation bill and without a bonding bill,” said Dayton, about 14 hours after the Legislature’s 11-week session broke down in acrimony between the DFL-led Senate and the Republican-led House. “Those are serious unmet needs of Minnesota.”
Despite a personal plea from Republican Speaker Kurt Daudt that Dayton quickly convene a special legislative session, the DFL governor said he’d take a few days to review the new spending and tax cuts that were approved in the final hours Sunday.
“Whether or not there will be a special session, I cannot say,” Dayton said.
Ultimately it will be his decision: Only the governor can call a special session, which gives Dayton significant leverage over lawmakers hoping he will bring them back to approve dozens of transportation and infrastructure projects in every corner of the state.
That’s a boost to supporters of the proposed Southwest Light Rail Transit project from downtown Minneapolis to Eden Prairie, which needs a $135 million local match in order to secure $895 million from the Federal Transit Administration. Whether and how to provide those dollars had become the main point of contention between DFL and GOP leaders Sunday night when the transportation and bonding deal collapsed in dramatic fashion in the session’s final minutes, the strong support among Senate DFLers matched by equally vociferous opposition by House Republicans.
Light rail supporters count Dayton as an ally, and he could easily insist on an ironclad guarantee that lawmakers would cough up the money before he summons them back.
“It is immensely disappointing that state lawmakers were unable to find a real, long-term solution for our transportation and transit needs,” said Adam Duininck, Dayton’s appointed chairman of the Metropolitan Council, which is shepherding the light rail project.
Lawmakers did approve a $259 million tax cut bill, with income exemptions on military pensions, tax credits for student loan debt and property tax relief for agricultural lands. Lawmakers also allocated several hundred million dollars in new money to public prekindergarten, rural broadband Internet expansion and efforts to ease racial economic disparities.
Dayton said Monday he would take the next few days to review those provisions, suggesting he saw much to support but also a few points of concern. Dayton praised the student loan tax credit and other provisions he said would benefit working families, but he criticized the repeal of an automatic increase in a state tax on tobacco products.
“I can’t comprehend why that would be considered to be good public policy,” Dayton said.
As has been increasingly the case in recent years, the final hours of the session Sunday transpired in a fog of confusion and a shortage of public details about plans for spending large amounts of taxpayer dollars, with the effort to craft a massive transportation and public works bonding compromise faltering despite bipartisan agreement over the need for it.
An apparent deal between Daudt and Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk included $819 million in bonding on higher education, transportation, water infrastructure and economic development, along with another $300 million in direct spending on additional transportation projects.
Details of the deal circulated with less than an hour before the constitutional deadline of midnight. The House passed the package about 11:45 p.m. and lobbed it to the Senate. It had no light rail funding, so DFL senators quickly added a provision to allow Hennepin County to raise those dollars independently of the state.
The Senate then tossed the hefty spending bill back to the House, which by that point had adjourned.
That breakdown led to recriminations and accusations Monday between Daudt and Bakk, who both have an eye on November when they must try to defend their respective majorities before voters.
Regardless of who said what to whom when, the bottom line appeared to be that House Republicans were unwilling to approve a transportation bill that included light rail money while Senate DFLers were unwilling to do so without it.
“We think there’s much better, smarter ways to spend our transportation dollars that will help more people,” Daudt said.
There’s no set deadline for Southwest Light Rail to secure the local funds needed to gain the federal match. But other projects nationwide also are vying for federal funds, and officials including U.S. Sen. Al Franken have warned that Minnesota could lose out without prompt action by state policymakers.
Daudt said Monday that he had asked his House colleagues to stay in St. Paul, and warned that waiting too long to call lawmakers back would likely result in a loss of momentum for the stalled transportation and bonding proposal.
“I asked him to call a special session either today or tomorrow,” Daudt said.
But a spokesman for Dayton said Monday that the administration had notified the speaker’s office that there was no reason for lawmakers to stick around.
Bakk said Monday that he, too, thought it a good idea for Dayton to take some time before deciding next steps. He would prefer a special session during summer or fall after tensions simmer down. “I’m not sure anything can come together real soon,” he said.
Staff writer Janet Moore contributed to this report.