ST. PAUL -- A dispute about whether the state auditor should have exclusive authority to audit county finances could delay a special Minnesota legislative session needed to finish passing the state budget.
Negotiators said they were within an eyelash of wrapping up loose budget ends for a special session.
"We're real close..." House Education Finance Chairwoman Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie, said. "Closer than last time I said it."
Still, hopes faded Wednesday that the special session could be held this week. Plans are for it to be a one-day session, but many legislators hope to hold committee hearings in advance so they can learn what their leaders and the Dayton administration have negotiated the past couple of weeks.
Thirty-four Democratic lawmakers Wednesday sent a letter to legislative leaders asking that bills be available at least 48 hours before any vote on them.
What could be the major special session roadblock is a non-budget item in a bill Gov. Mark Dayton signed last month that allows counties to hire private accountants to audit their books. Dayton said he signed the bill because it contained many provisions, including funding several state agencies, that needed to move ahead. But he wants lawmakers to overturn the auditor portion of the law.
Now, the state auditor is required to examine finances of 59 of the state's 87 counties, with others allowed to hire private firms. The new law would let all counties choose between the auditor and private companies.
Since the May 18 passage of the bill, State Auditor Rebecca Otto has waged a battle against opening audits up to private firms, saying those audits would not be as thorough as her office conducts.
"It just basically wipes out a principal function of a constitutional office," Dayton said, adding that he will not call a special session until legislative leaders agree that the provision be overturned.
House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, Wednesday repeated what he has said all week: There are not enough Republican House votes to overturn the law.
Another of the law's provisions removes Otto's audit authority on July 1, something she calls unintentional. Daudt said that lawmakers are ready to pass a fix and allow Otto to continue conducting audits after July 1.
The speaker said he is confident that Dayton will call the special session once he realizes that the fix can pass. The county auditing provision does not take effect until next year, he said, so the Legislature will have time to consider that change in 2016.
"I think this is a difficult sell for the governor..." Daudt said. "It probably is not advisable for us to hold up a special session for a bill he just signed."
The extra session is needed because Dayton vetoed three of the eight budget bills lawmakers passed before the May 18 end of the regular session. Also, lawmakers did not get to a couple of bills before time ran out, and they are expected to be considered in a special session.
Lawmakers passed and Dayton signed much of the $42 billion, two-year budget, but the largest single part remains undone: $17 billion for education. That was the key to negotiations since the regular session ended, with Dayton and Daudt eventually reaching an education deal when the governor gave up his insistence on money to allow 4-year-olds to attend school classes.
Among legislation on the special session agenda probably will be a public works funding bill, which could include money for the Lewis and Clark rural water program, Capitol renovation, rail crossing safety projects, flood relief and other items that still were being discussed Wednesday.
Suddenly, less talk and a lot more action
The leak coming from the Minnesota House speaker's office suite Wednesday was not the kind reporters wanted.
As two reporters, looking for some information leaks, were sitting in the lobby waiting for Speaker Kurt Daudt to emerge and give details of budget talks, the sound of dripping water began -- and grew louder. In a few minutes, water drops began to fall inches away.
Soon, it was a steady stream and the plumbers were called to the Republican speaker's corner suite.
Daudt came out of his office between private meetings and, as soon as he saw what was happening, jumped into action.
While Bob Meyerson, chief House sergeant at arms, was standing on a side table removing ceiling tiles, Daudt was moving barrels into place to catch the water.
In the meantime, several lawmakers on scene to negotiate the state budget were watching, wearing big smiles.
Within a few minutes, a bevy of state officials, other state workers and plumbers were on scene, allowing Daudt to give up his building fixer role and return to his budget fixer job.
Wednesday’s leak was found quickly enough to avoid much damage, but one on Memorial Day was another matter.
A Democratic staffer on the second floor during the holiday noticed a leak that was traced to the speaker's suite. It resulted in water flowing onto the floor and a ceiling collapse.