A Look At The Messy Politics At The Capitol

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Looking for an explanation for why, after finishing a budget, the Minnesota Legislature is still in shambles? One answer is on a single piece of paper signed in the waning moments of the legislative session.

Gov. Mark Dayton and top lawmakers emerged an hour before the regular session expired last month with a deal to pass a $46 billion budget in special session. But unlike the previous agreements governors and lawmakers have signed before calling lawmakers back for overtime — with detailed spreadsheets and hundreds of pages of bill text to be passed as-is — there were just a few scant lines with no clarity on what the remaining budget bills would contain.

The vague agreement left plenty of wiggle room for both sides to exploit. The result has been a prolonged slog to work out the details of a new spending package, dragging out a special session days longer than intended.

Republicans ended up sending Dayton a measure that linked funding for 13,000 employees at the Department of Revenue to Dayton’s approval of $650 million in tax breaks, forcing Dayton’s signature or risking a partial government shutdown. They also loaded up a bill banning cities from raising their minimum wages or implementing individual sick leave policies with Democratic goodies like pension increases and extending a state employee parental leave program, though Dayton vetoed it anyway.

In response, Dayton zeroed out all of the Legislature’s funding through a line-item veto last week, dangling it as leverage to force Republicans to return to the Capitol to remove tax breaks for tobacco products, wealthy estate owners, business property taxes and other measures he signed as part of the budget.

So nearly two weeks after the Legislature’s scheduled adjournment, Dayton and lawmakers are still bickering about the budget and heading for an ugly court battle over whether the governor’s action was constitutional.

Special session agreements are meant to ensure a quick finish with no surprises. Amy Koch, a former Senate Majority Leader who helped end the 2011 government shutdown by signing one of them, said legislative leaders’ deal this time clearly fell short.

“When a deal is struck, that’s got to be the deal,” she said. “They really had an agreement without some of the bigger details finalized. Maybe that’s why we’re seeing this residual.”

Dayton and top Republicans deadlocked for much of the year over how to spend a $1.65 billion budget surplus. When they finally reached a rough deal minutes before the session ended, the terms were less than a page, with a simple list of the seven bills the Legislature would send Dayton.

Legislative leaders said that as time ticked away, there was an overriding urge to wrap up quickly despite the mountain of remaining differences.

“Any time you have to wait longer, put it out a week or two, it just creates more and more pressure to not accept something or to fight for something,” Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said. “We just felt like: It’s better to just push through and get it done.”

Preschool funding was the linchpin to the special session. After resisting putting up money for Dayton’s prized new program, Gazelka and House Speaker Kurt Daudt offered to give the governor an additional $50 million — with one slight twist.

“We finally agreed to call it something else: School Readiness Plus,” Dayton said, noting the rebranded program allows school districts to choose between dedicated preschool offerings and more broad school readiness programs. “It was essential to the entire agreement.”

But it took several days more to work out the specifics of state government financing and cuts to health care services. Those bills eventually passed and Dayton signed them all last week, blasting the threat of axing Department of Revenue funding as “a sneak attack” and demanding lawmakers return to slim down a tax bill he says will ruin the state’s financial stability.

Dayton also wants legislators to remove a ban on issuing driver’s licenses to immigrants living in the state illegally, and to rework changes to how Minnesota teachers are licensed.

Lawmakers are taking steps to challenge Dayton’s budget blockade in court, and Daudt and Gazelka have shown little interest reopening budget negotiations they assumed were settled.

“If he didn’t like them, he shouldn’t have signed the bills,” Daudt said.

Daudt downplayed the importance of putting those agreements reached in private to paper.

“I’ve never been a big fan or felt it necessary to have signed agreements. I’ve always felt that your word should mean something,” he said. “We’ve lived up to our agreement.”

(© Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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