Legislators look for path to finish session

/ 26 April 2012 / jennifer

Tom Scheck, Minnesota Public Radio, April 26, 2012 –

St. Paul, Minn. — A new stadium for the Minnesota Vikings is at the forefront of talks at the State Capitol. But there are other major pieces of legislation that lawmakers hope to pass before they wrap up the session.

Gov. Mark Dayton and legislative leaders have been meeting behind closed doors to discuss those issues, but they remain tight-lipped on their progress.

There are four major pieces of legislation being discussed at the State Capitol. The Vikings stadium is getting the most attention and votes in the House and Senate are expected in the coming days. The other three are a tax bill, a public works construction bill and a bill that would change teacher tenure rules. Dayton said he is willing to negotiate on all issues except the so-called “last in, first out” tenure bill that would allow school districts to lay off teachers with more seniority rather than those most recently hired. Dayton said he is talking with legislative leaders about the other issues.

“This is time to be patient in the executive branch because they have 200 people who have earned their right to be here and are going to be making their own decision,” the governor said.

Dayton has been holding private meetings with legislative leaders and individual members to discuss the outstanding issues. While most legislative sessions typically end with the governor and lawmakers announcing a grand bargain, Republican House Speaker Kurt Zellers said that is unlikely this year.

“I don’t think this year is one of those years where you’ll see that here we all are standing in front of a microphone saying, ‘It’s done and we’re moving on,’ “Zellers said. “It’s just one of those years when you get this or that and individual bills with the votes once you get the votes.”

On taxes, House and Senate Republicans have been working to craft a bill that cuts the statewide business property tax, creates an upfront exemption for businesses buying equipment and gives some property tax relief to homeowners. Republican Sen. Julianne Ortman hinted that the House and Senate were inching closer to a deal.

“There’s a lot of business tax relief but there’s also individual property tax relief, and I believe that’s all in agreement between the House and the Senate,” Ortman said.

A spokeswoman for the governor, however, said Dayton has not signed off on the tax bill. Another issue is the size and scope of a public works bill. The House rejected a $221 million borrowing plan that would have renovated the State Capitol. Republicans retooled the proposal to include funding for higher education buildings and other projects. That $433 million plan is still too small for House Democrats.

DFL House Minority Leader Paul Thissen said his caucus won’t put up the votes to pass it.

“We want a big bonding bill and we’ve made that clear all along. Every day for the last week and-a-half, I’ve gone over to the other side and said, “Let’s sit down in a room and knock together a good bonding bill that gets strong support across the aisle,’” Thissen said.

Republicans in the House and Senate need DFL votes because bonding bills require a three-fifths super-majority to pass. Thissen is calling the whole effort a “Do Nothing Legislature” because many of the big ticket items are still being hashed out. That label is fine with Sen. Dave Thompson, R-Lakeville, who is one of the more conservative members of the Legislature and has been criticizing his own party’s leaders for allowing the end of session to focus on a stadium and a bonding bill. Thompson said he doesn’t believe Republicans won control of the House and Senate because they promised to focus on stadiums and bonding bills.

“The 2010 election was pretty clear. People wanted things done in a different way. A different way being scaling back government and its influence on our lives and that’s what we should be doing,” Thompson said.

Thompson said he intends to use every tool available to defeat the Vikings bill and the bonding bill if they reach the Senate floor. Republicans have said that they hope to end session on Monday but they can meet longer than that.