Budget talks between Gov. Mark Dayton and Republican legislative leaders swerved off track on Tuesday, as the GOP-led House and Senate began to vote on and pass a series of major spending bills that the DFL governor promised he would veto.
The breakdown in negotiations comes with less than two weeks to the end of the legislative session. It elevated the likelihood that the session’s closing weeks will be overrun with partisan recriminations between Dayton and Republican majorities, and the possibility of a lengthy budget stalemate. Such standoffs caused state government shutdowns in 2005 (under Gov. Tim Pawlenty) and 2011 (under Dayton).
After a week of closed-door negotiations, Tuesday was a day of fits and starts at the Capitol. Dayton and GOP leaders met privately in the afternoon, but both sides also appeared before reporters to publicly blame the other for the stalled talks. The bottom line: Dayton and Republicans remain deeply divided over how to spend about $46 billion in taxpayer dollars in the next two years.
“[Republicans] should know that I will veto every one of those bills, which will leave us with the same differences several days from now that we face today,” Dayton said in a statement Tuesday evening, around the time the Legislature started to move on the GOP-crafted bills. “Their actions will make it much more difficult for them to fulfill their Constitutional responsibility to send me budget bills, which I can sign, by May 22nd.”
The Republican plan, assembled by leaders in the House and Senate, calls for using much of the state’s $1.65 billion surplus to provide more than $1 billion in new tax cuts and credits that principally benefit farmers, college students, businesses, senior citizens and people paying for child care. It cuts or slows the growth of state spending for environmental protection, health and human services benefits and other areas.
The GOP plan also eliminates a new prekindergarten program that Dayton counts among his signature achievements, instead prioritizing spending on scholarships for private or public preschools. The budget bills contain a long list of changes to state policy, ranging from eliminating the state’s MNsure individual insurance exchange, to blocking the construction of new light-rail lines without the Legislature’s approval.
Since last week, House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, and Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, have led a group of Republican lawmakers meeting regularly with Dayton and his aides as the sides attempted to bridge differences. Those talks appeared to implode by late Monday, as legislative budget committees finalized their bills and prepared for votes. On Tuesday morning, Daudt and Gazelka said they were frustrated by a slow pace they blamed on Dayton.
Daudt said Republicans were prepared to move forward without Dayton if the governor didn’t come closer to the GOP plans.
“There’s just a lot of really good things in these bills, so our hope is that this is something the governor can adopt because we know Minnesotans would be behind it,” he said.
The speaker followed through on that pledge later in the day. Less than a half-hour after wrapping up negotiations with Dayton — and without notice — the Legislature began approving budget bills, starting with those focused on agriculture and environment spending.
On the floor of the House and Senate, and around the Capitol, DFL lawmakers reacted with concern and outrage. Sen. Tony Lourey, DFL-Kerrick, said Republicans’ proposed $500 million in reductions to health and human services programs would put Minnesotans at risk.
“People live and die based on the decisions we make,” he said, “and they deserve more than they are getting.”
Minority Leader Melissa Hortman, DFL- Brooklyn Park, warned that by voting on bills without further negotiation, “we almost certainly send this legislative session into overtime.”
Republicans defended their spending plans, noting the pace of their budget process this year has been quicker than in the recent past.
“We need to show the people of Minnesota that we in the Legislature are getting our work done,” said House Majority Leader Joyce Peppin, R-Rogers. She, Daudt and Gazelka said Republicans don’t want to be blamed for not approving a full state budget by the constitutional adjournment deadline of May 22.
In order to avoid the much messier, politically damaging proposition of a state government shutdown, lawmakers must pass a budget — and get it signed by the governor — by July 1.