ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — All eyes at the Minnesota Legislature are on crafting a new budget, but you wouldn’t know it from the pace at the Capitol.
After several weeks dedicated to cobbling together budget bills that passed the Republican-controlled House and Senate, the Legislature is entering a quiet stretch. To finalize a new, two-year budget expected to surpass $45 billion, lawmakers need direction from Gov. Mark Dayton and top legislative leaders. But it’s unclear when negotiations to bridge widely different priorities will begin — let alone conclude.
Small teams of lawmakers from both the House and Senate began meeting Wednesday to start running through the relatively minor differences between House and Senate budgets. But their work is limited, and even powerful committee chairs such as Republican Sen. Jim Abeler said the heavy lifting to finish the budget is in a holding pattern.
“The money discussions are going to happen at a level that is above my pay grade,” said Abeler, who chairs a health care finance committee.
Dayton has pushed lawmakers to first work out the differences between the House and Senate budgets before pivoting to the broader fight over funding between himself and legislative Republicans.
“After the House and Senate have completed their preliminary work … the Governor and Lt. Governor stand ready to negotiate the remaining differences between the Legislature’s and Governor’s positions,” spokesman Matt Swenson said in a statement.
Heading into those critical negotiations, the Republican Legislature and Democratic governor are on different pages. Dayton has proposed a roughly $46 billion budget, with a small slice for tax relief and some major spending increases like a $175 million expansion for a new preschool program. Republicans have approved slimmer spending hikes while issuing $900 million or more in tax cuts.
While that bargaining gears up, the workload slows to a near-halt for most lawmakers. Freshman Republican Rep. Randy Jessup took advantage of the downtime Wednesday by going for a lunchtime run and greeting students from his Shoreview-area district before a tour of the Capitol.
“It is a change of pace. It will be nice,” Jessup said.
In the meantime, there’s not much more work remaining at the Legislature. After years of stalled efforts, legislative leaders are hoping to finally approve a plan to comply with the federal Real ID Act in the coming weeks. Top lawmakers from the House and Senate indicated they’re closing in on a deal to avoid domestic flight disruptions when the stricter requirements for driver’s licenses take effect in early 2018.
The Senate was also expected to take up controversial legislation on Thursday that would block cities from raising their own minimum wages or creating individual sick leave policies. That legislation passed the House last month.
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka acknowledged the Legislature’s slowing pace, but said he hopes an earlier start to negotiations helps avoid the usual last-minute rush to pass budget bills.
“My hope is that we don’t leave all the bills to the end,” he said.
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