Dayton demands, gets last-minute concessions
After days of fits and starts, final agreement on a $283 million supplemental budget package came together late Thursday night, about 72 hours before the Minnesota Legislature’s required May 19 adjournment.
The conference committee meeting to sort out the discrepant spending bills passed in the House and Senate had met only sporadically in previous weeks, but began taking up and passing the various pieces of the budget accord in a flurry of action that started on Tuesday, after legislative leaders had agreed on sector-by-sector targets for a global deal.
That momentum left all but one of the budget’s spending categories approved by midday on Thursday, when the conference committee recessed for an estimated half-hour break. But conference committee members ended up staying out for nearly nine hours, during which time conferees – and other legislators, including high-ranking chairs and members of leadership from both parties – took turns walking into the conference room, only to discover that the chairs around the meeting table sat empty.
The delay was caused by the late submission of a series of negotiating requests from Gov. Mark Dayton, who sought the inclusion of several provisions that had not yet been funded in the bill. Senior staff for Dayton then conducted last-minute meetings with the conference co-chairs – Sen. Richard Cohen, DFL-St. Paul, and Rep. Lyndon Carlson, DFL-Crystal – in an attempt to find and rededicate unspent money toward the governor’s stated aims.
Governor’s wishes met
In the end, nearly all of Dayton’s requests were accommodated in the final bill, which was amended numerous times early Friday morning before it was finally agreed to and sent to the House floor.
Following the vote, Carlson, chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, said the administration’s late list of priorities was not dissimilar from previous budget negotiations he had experienced.
“We were fortunate, this time,” Carlson said. “It was a pretty smooth transition, because we did have some funding on the bottom line we could move around without having to dig into other accounts.”
At the governor’s request, the committee approved funding for the dog and cat breeder licensing bill, which comes at a cost of $310,000 in this biennium and about $860,000 in the 2016-17 “tails,” and added $4 million in the next budget for increased security measures on the Capitol complex, extending an appropriation that had previously been a one-time expenditure in fiscal year 2015.
Other major compromise moves in the budget included:
- The addition of funding for the University of Minnesota’s Bell Museum, formerly contained in the capital investment bill. Under the terms agreed to by conferees, the state boosted base funding to the U by $3.5 million annually, starting in 2016 and running for the following 25 years, which the school will use to pay the debt service on the project.
- A $20 million grant program for expansion of broadband internet access in outstate areas. The final spending line fell short of the $25 million allowance passed in the House but nonetheless constituted a win for the lower chamber, since the Senate had initially failed to approve any new funds for broadband. Dan Dorman, a former legislator and the executive director of the Greater Minnesota Partnership nonprofit, called the grant program a “historic first step” for outstate internet access.
- A raft of new spending for public education, including a $25 per-pupil boost to the general education formula. That increase comes at a cost of $23.4 million in fiscal year 2015 and $52.8 million in the 2016-17 budget. The committee also delivered $4.6 million in this budget for early learning scholarships, and an additional $9.8 million in the next, a move that bill author Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, said could allow up to 1,000 more children access to “a high quality learning and development environment while their parents work.”
Enviro/ag budget tapped
Cohen and Carlson tapped leftover funds from the bottom line of the environment, natural resources and agriculture article – the last element to come under the committee’s extensive review – to find money for specific projects backed by the governor.
The relatively smooth process of incorporating programs Dayton sought did not mean the committee’s work passed without moments of acrimony. At one point, Rep. Tim Mahoney, DFL-St. Paul, brought an amendment that called for the Department of Labor and Industry to study how many Minnesotans have a 48-hour work week, explaining that he was particularly interested in that study’s findings with respect to the agriculture industry.
Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, offered to support the amendment in exchange for Mahoney’s voting in favor of a Senate amendment relating to the use of licensed plumbers for submersible pipes when no drilling contractor is available. Mahoney’s amendment was initially voted down, and Tomassoni then amended the Senate’s submersible pipe provision to include the Mahoney idea.
Visibly perturbed at the gamesmanship, Mahoney said he simply wanted to see his measure adopted, and did not care how it was done. The combined amendment was adopted on a voice vote.
Another sticking point emerged when it became clear the committee would not support the so-called “Toxic Free Kids Act.” That idea would have forced in-state manufacturers and distributors to disclose whether their products contained any of nine different substances deemed harmful to children by the Department of Health. The provision had the support of the House and the governor, but did not make the bill’s final cut. Cohen said in committee that he had heard House Republicans would not support a bonding bill if the anti-toxics element was incorporated into the budget bill.
This news clearly upset Rep. Jean Wagenius, DFL-Minneapolis, chair of the House Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture Finance Committee, who later left the conference room with Cohen. Cohen eventually returned and called for a brief recess of the process, which, at that point, had no remaining amendments on its agenda.
Not long after the recess, conferees returned to the table. They took no further action to amend the bill, and approved the conference report on a voice vote.
After the vote, Carlson said the process of incorporating amendments and making technical changes to the budget bill could take up to 12 hours. A Friday morning start to that process suggests that the bill could be ready for a House floor vote by late Friday evening or early Saturday.