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Lots of topics, little time for 2016 Minnesota Legislature

ST. PAUL -- Transportation. Taxes. Public works projects. Education. Water quality. That is merely the beginning of the list of topics Minnesota lawmakers want to consider when they return to session Tuesday. It is not a much different list than ...

Legislative briefing
Leaders of the Minnesota's House and Senate joined Gov. Mark Dayton Thursday during a legislative briefing at the Senate building in St. Paul. (Forum News Service photo by Mike Longaecker)

 

ST. PAUL -- Transportation. Taxes. Public works projects. Education. Water quality.

That is merely the beginning of the list of topics Minnesota lawmakers want to consider when they return to session Tuesday. It is not a much different list than other years, but the time to accomplish anything is limited, mostly because of a $304 million Capitol renovation that has closed everything but the House chamber, one elevator and hallways allowing people to get to the chamber.

Senators are meeting in a committee room converted into a temporary chamber.

Is the session too short to get much done? Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, said it will be tough to accomplish some things, but House Minority Leader Paul Thissen looked at it a different way:

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"Just remember when we talk about 10 weeks, the whole budget of, you know, however many billion dollars it is, was basically negotiated in all its details in about 10 days at the end of last session. So 10 weeks seems like a lot of time to get a lot of work done to me."

Many of the state's 201 legislators have complained that 10 weeks is not enough to do the work they need accomplish.

The session that begins Tuesday must end by May 23, with just a couple of days recess planned late this month around Easter and another day for Passover next month. It is a condensed session with an expanded wish list in an election year when all legislative seats are up.

A recent Forum News Service-sponsored forum showed plenty of disagreement among Gov. Mark Dayton and four legislative leaders, a preview of what Minnesotans can expect in the next 10 weeks. The forum ended with no clear indication about what may pass.

One forum exchange about education sums up nicely where a lot of things stand:

Dayton: "Oh yes it does, you're wrong."

Speaker Kurt Daudt: "No it doesn't."

Dayton: "Yeah it does."

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Even the session's biggest agreement -- the need to increase transportation funding -- includes significant disagreements.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, said it is important to develop a long-term transportation plan, not just a funding package. But funding is critical and Democrat Dayton says he is sticking to his proposal to add a new gasoline tax until Republicans come up with something better.

"I put out a proposal last year, got roundly rejected, OK," Dayton said. "Mine's out there. I want to see what others in the Legislature have to offer, but I insist that it be real."

Republicans want to move some taxes already coming into the state over to the transportation funding ledger, but Democrats complain that would short other programs.

Daudt, R-Crown, said he is "very optimistic" a transportation plan will pass, but no agreement has surfaced on the funding issue.

Bakk said his long-term solution does not mean taking money out of the current surplus for transportation and telling voters the matter is solved. On the other hand, he also expressed concerns about promising too much money from the state tax-supported General Fund because the future for tax receipts is uncertain.

The latest surplus news made agreeing to solutions harder for the governor and lawmakers.

An expected $1.2 billion budget surplus now looks more likely to be a $900 million one, state leaders learned on Feb. 26. And budgets after the current one ends June 30, 2017, are uncertain. That led to Senate Tax Chairman Rod Skoe, D-Clearbrook, to insist that any new programs not require funding from future budgets.

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Even-numbered years traditionally feature debate about funding public works projects, such as buying parkland, fixing state buildings' roofs and helping cities build convention centers.

That is a major issue this year, too, with major disagreement about how much to spend. Dayton wants $1.4 billion in public projects, while Republicans lean to something closer to $800 million.

A public works bill most likely will pass, funded by the state selling bonds, because greater Minnesota lawmakers feel the need to return home after the session with projects in hand.

Other issues are as divisive as transportation and bonding. While many in both parties say they would like to cut taxes, how that is accomplished remains elusive, at best. Dayton wants the state to help local governments clean up drinking water, as part of the bonding bill, but legislative leaders have not listed that as a priority. And how to relieve prison overcrowding is becoming less clear as the session approaches.

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