After last year’s contentious budget fight and 20-day government shutdown, budget officials now say the state is $323 million in the black for the remainder of the 2012-13 biennium. And as much as lawmakers might yearn to use that money to pay for tax cuts or other policy proposals, the surplus is destined to top off the cash reserve account and start paying off more than $2 billion in delayed school payments, as dictated by law.
It’s possible that even more dollars could be thrown at the school shift repayment: In one of the more dramatic legislative turns of the session, House K-12 Education Finance Chairman Pat Garofalo introduced a delete-everything amendment in committee on Thursday that would take $430 million from the refilled budget reserve account to pay the shift back down to a 70-30 ratio, where it stood before last year’s $750 million expansion of the aid shift. The amendment passed, and the bill was referred to Taxes for a Monday hearing.
Still, notable legislative initiatives have proven to be few and far between in 2012. Only a handful of closely watched bills have been sent to Gov. Mark Dayton in the nearly two-month-old session, and almost all were met with swift vetoes and reproachful messages. On the list of failed items: a package of tort reform bills and a proposal to expand the legal authorization for using deadly force in the state.
“I don’t think there are high expectations for this session,” said former DFL Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe, who is a lobbyist. “They’ve been wrestling with budget problems, and now, at least on paper, the budget is balanced through this biennium. On top of that, it’s also an election year, and the stadium is sucking all the air out of the place.”
That’s not likely to change, Capitol regulars say; they’ve been doing the math.
If lawmakers keep to their original goal to end lawmaking by April 30, the session has already reached its halfway point. Within one week the first policy deadline will arrive, and lawmakers plan to take a 10-day break in April. Add to the mix the 201 new legislative districts and dozens of new candidates arising from the release of the state’s redistricting maps, and Capitol watchers say it adds up to a do-nothing session. Aside from a bonding bill and the passage of possibly one more constitutional amendment, most expect little to happen.
“One of the greatest motivators is the fear of losing power,” lobbyist Mike Zipko said. “I think most people want to get out and get to know the people in their new districts. There’s not a lot of motivation to stick around here.”
Vikings, gambling face tough odds
Atop the list of things that won’t get done, for many, is the Vikings stadium. Some lawmakers and lobbyists have privately declared the proposal dead on arrival, while others give the stadium a slim chance of passing in the remaining weeks.
After multiple false starts at the Capitol over the years, advocates say they have a final proposal ready for a new stadium near the Metrodome site, and hearings will begin next week. According to one GOP lobbyist, House and Senate leaders have calculated that the bill will likely need to be heard in at least four and as many as six policy committees before it can head to finance committees. While most expect the stadium proposal to get a hearing or two, the chances of the bill making it all the way to the floor before adjournment are deemed low.
Lobbyists say it will be hard for the team to persuade lawmakers to take a tough vote on a Vikings stadium ahead of a contentious election year, especially when it’s unclear whether the Minneapolis City Council has all the votes needed to move forward.
“If you are a swing district legislator and you are trying to decide whether to vote for this, why would you bother taking a vote until the Minneapolis City Council takes a vote on this?” longtime DFL lobbyist Ted Grindal said. “Why would they take this political risk if it’s unclear whether council members will support this?”
The perennial racino bill was another issue some Capitol hands expected to make a bigger splash this session, especially with the election of longtime racino proponent Dave Senjem as Senate majority leader and a strong desire on the part of some lawmakers to tie racino proceeds to paying back the universally disliked school shift.
But the bill was abruptly pulled from its first — and only — committee hearing in Senate Education the evening before it was set to be heard. In withdrawing the bill, Senjem said he was concerned about the vote total in the committee.
League of Minnesota Cities lobbyist Gary Carlson also sees little movement on tax reform measures pushed early this session. GOPers have proposed a 12-year phase-out of the state’s business property taxes. To pay for the proposal, Republican lawmakers suggested reducing the state’s renter’s credit.
“I just think it’s going to be a real hard sell to make anything happen,” Carlson said. “Clearing the financial source identified appears to be a non-starter with the Democrats and the governor.”
And with the budget surplus finalized and a statutory requirement to use all that money to replenish the state’s budget reserve and pay back schools, Carlson sees little overall movement on any tax or spending proposals. “I just don’t see how much gets done in terms of spending.”
High hopes for bonding bill
By most accounts, a package of bonding proposals has the best chance of any bill to make it out of the 2012 session alive. “Frankly, they all need it because there won’t be a lot of other accomplishments this session,” Grindal said.
Early in the session, there was even talk that Republicans would use the governor’s desire for a bonding bill to bargain in some of their Reform 2.0 proposals, but as the session stretches on, the reform bills have fallen into the background, and few imagine the governor will be willing to cut a deal.
“I’m not sure how much the administration would be willing to give up for a bonding bill,” said lobbyist and former DFL House Speaker Bob Vanasek. “If a bonding bill is a small number, then Republicans are going to have difficulty passing that on their own. Legislators will look at it and say, ‘What’s in it for me and my district?’ It’s a combination of some Democrats not voting for a bill that’s too small and some Republicans not wanting to bond at all. If that’s the case, they could have a tough time.”
Another potential success of the session could lie in an agreement on education policy changes. Dayton has already signed a Republican bill to require teachers in the state to pass a basic skills examination before they can receive a teaching license. The governor and GOP lawmakers are now in the middle of a discussion on the so-called “last in, first out” bill, which would eliminate teacher seniority privileges in layoffs and replace that standard with evaluation results.
By most accounts, at least one more constitutional amendment will also pass both chambers and hit the ballot box this fall, and a voter photo identification requirement is moving through committees in both chambers toward a floor vote. While some lobbyists originally thought as many as two or three more constitutional amendments would pass, many now believe that only the photo ID amendment will make it through the abbreviated session to join last session’s gay marriage ban on the ballot.
Buzz has subsided regarding budgetary amendments in both chambers. (The main House proposal would require a 60 percent supermajority to pass tax increases, while the bill favored in the Senate would limit spending to 98 percent of projected biennial revenues.)
Meanwhile, a proposed “right-to-work” constitutional amendment has become a flashpoint in both caucuses.
GOP Sen. Dave Thompson, the chief author of the right-to-work bill in the Senate, made an unusual motion on Thursday to re-refer the amendment from the Senate Jobs Committee to the Senate Judiciary Committee, where most observers believe it has a better chance of passing. The bill was scheduled to have its first hearing early Monday, but the reservations of moderate members in the Senate — and even more in the House — are likely to keep this amendment from reaching the ballot, in the view of most lobbyists who spoke to Capitol Report.
“Since amendments do not require the governor, it becomes a question of how the caucuses are going to manage themselves and decide what their priorities are,” Grindal said. “The odds are that photo ID is next in line, but after that it gets really murky.”