Sharp divisions in the spending and policy priorities of DFL Gov. Mark Dayton and Republican majorities in the state House and Senate guarantee a grueling final five weeks of Minnesota's legislative session.
After a weeklong spring break, lawmakers return to St. Paul on Tuesday needing to finalize decisions on more than $40 billion in taxpayer dollars that will make up Minnesota's next two-year budget. Dayton's proposals diverge in major ways from the spending bills that Republicans approved in recent weeks, setting up the kind of political deadlock that has characterized legislative session endgames in recent years.
By law, the Legislature must adjourn by May 22. But the new budget won't take effect until July 1 — a hard deadline that, if blown, would force a partial shutdown of state government. Minnesota has seen two state shutdowns since 2005, one under Dayton and one under his Republican predecessor, Gov. Tim Pawlenty, and both came about under the kind of divided government that again prevails in St. Paul.
Two years ago, the budget-setting process dragged into early summer before it was resolved in a June special session. House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said he's optimistic it "won't be bad" this time around. It helps, he said, that Minnesota isn't in dire financial straits; legislators and Dayton have a $1.65 billion budget surplus forecast on which to base spending decisions.
"We have a surplus, and we're certainly willing to be reasonable and we hope the governor is too," Daudt said.
But with Dayton setting out strong positions on how best to use the surplus for state programs, and Republicans committed to narrowing spending and passing large tax-cut packages, some in the Legislature are not convinced that the last weeks of the session will be smooth.
"I feel like things are probably going to get rougher before they get better," said Sen. Jeff Hayden, DFL-Minneapolis.
Already this session, the Legislature has approved two bills totaling $826 million in spending on the individual health insurance market, one for direct premium relief and one to create a "reinsurance" program. The goal is to push down premium costs and keep insurance companies on the market. More health care laws are likely to follow.
Republicans want to dissolve the MNsure individual market platform and send Minnesotans to the federal exchange, which DFLers oppose. Meanwhile, Dayton continues to push for a buy-in expansion to MinnesotaCare, the state's health insurance program for low-income residents. Under his plan, Minnesotans at higher income levels would pay the full premiums for their insurance.
Health and human services
Republicans, hoping to find more savings and cut taxes, want to trim spending on assistance programs they say have grown too much during Dayton's time in office. While GOP plans boost spending over current levels, they don't keep pace with built-in increases like inflation. The governor's office has particularly taken issue with the House GOP bill, which it says would amount to a $600 million budget cut and prompt significant reductions in facilities and programs for low-income residents and people with disabilities and mental illness.
GOP leaders say their budgets focus on elderly and disabled Minnesotans. Daudt says Dayton's administration has resulted in too many people receiving state assistance.
Early education spending is again a major dividing line between Dayton and Republicans. The governor wants to spend an additional $175 million to expand prekindergarten to about 200 more districts and charter schools. House Republicans are looking to shut down the year-old prekindergarten program — one of Dayton's signature achievements — altogether. Their plan would direct a smaller amount of money for other early education programs and preschool scholarships that could be used for private day care. The Senate's school funding bill retains prekindergarten funding for 74 districts where it's up and running, but doesn't include money for an expansion.
On environmental issues, Republicans in St. Paul are following the lead of colleagues in Washington by trying to drive down permitting costs by trimming regulations and cutting from state agencies.
Under a bill passed by the House, the state's Pollution Control Agency would see its budget drop by $18 million from the current two-year budget cycle, while the Senate would reduce the agency's budget by $22 million. The Department of Natural Resources said cuts proposed for its agency would require it to cut about 100 workers. Those proposals are unpopular with DFLers, and Dayton has already threatened to veto the bills because they would delay implementation of a law requiring buffers around public waterways to keep pollution and pesticides out — another of his signature achievements.
The urban/rural divide in Minnesota politics has been stark in the debate over the spending on roads, bridges, buses and trains. Republican majorities in both legislative chambers passed ambitious spending plans ($2.2 billion in the House and $1.3 billion in the Senate) that would pour money into roads and bridges from taxes on auto parts and repairs, rentals and leases.
GOP plans largely leave out metro-area public transit and would likely force about $122 million in cuts, according to the Metropolitan Council. Those cuts are problematic for Dayton and fellow DFLers, who also want to see transportation improvements funded out of a more steady stream of revenue, like an increase to the gas tax.
House transportation and tax bills include provisions to prohibit Minnesota cities and counties from spending money to study or plan new light-rail or high-speed train lines. Three separate House and Senate bills include measures to block cities from banning plastic bags and to overturn Minneapolis' new bag-ban ordinance. The House tax bill would reduce state aid to any city that spent money to attract or promote a world fair or expo.
A bill that would prohibit cities from raising the minimum wage or mandating sick or family leave passed in the House but has not been taken up on the floor of the Senate. That provision could still be sent to the governor as a stand-alone bill or incorporated into another package.
Policy proposals proved to be the most controversial element in public safety bills approved by the House and Senate.
House GOP members voted to increase penalties for people who protest on freeways and to lease a privately owned prison in Appleton, Minn.
The House bill would also make changes in the use of solitary confinement in state prisons, expand mental health services to prisoners and expand funding for training police to deal with people who are suicidal or have serious mental illness.
Faced with a January 2018 deadline for the state to comply with the federal Real ID law — or leave Minnesotans unable to get through airport security with simply a driver's license — a majority of lawmakers say they're ready to finally comply with the federal requirement.
Both the House and Senate have passed bills that would bring the state in line with the tighter federal security regulations. But differences remain between the two chambers and two parties over whether a Real ID bill should address whether immigrants in the country illegally can get driver's licenses. House GOP lawmakers are aiming to pass a bill to prevent that from happening.