While the public’s eyes were glued this week to the passage and signing of the gay marriage bill, most lobbyists were camped out in the Capitol well into the night tracking — or awaiting — the deliberations of numerous conference committees.
Things started moving after the news on Sunday that Gov. Mark Dayton and DFL legislative leaders had agreed on broad contours of a 2014-15 budget plan. Their agreement would raise roughly $2 billion in permanent revenue for the upcoming biennium. While the laborious negotiations for taxes and health and human services weren’t expected to be wrapped up for days to come, other conference committees are under orders to wrap their bills up post-haste.
Toward that end, the House and Senate have been trading offers since Monday morning and conference committees dealing with budget areas such as the courts system and workforce development have been meeting well into the night. In one instance, the energy conferees posted their conference report at 1:27 a.m. on Tuesday only to postpone its floor hearing in the House due to backlash from some utilities groups. Themes throughout the week have included difficulties in reconciling the House’s reliance on fees in some budget areas, which the Senate has generally opposed.
Here’s a rundown of what has happened so far this week in conference committee deliberations.
The House and Senate came into conference committee on the judiciary and public safety bill with significant differences on funding for courts. The House bill, sponsored by Rep. Debra Hilstrom, DFL-Brooklyn Center, contained a number of fees. The Senate, led by Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, was opposed to the fees. (One key reason for the fee approach was that the House’s initial target was lower than the Senate’s.) The House on Monday morning made the first offer and dropped its largest fee proposal, which would have raised $13 million from a $15 increase on criminal traffic cases. The Senate’s counterproposal eliminated the fees altogether.
The House prevailed on its amounts for increased funding for public defenders. The Senate, which had provided $5 million for public defender salary and benefit increases, agreed to the House’s increased amount of $8.6 million. The Senate, which had proposed $5.6 million for new hires to reduce public defender caseloads, went down to the House’s $3.8 million.
The House also prevailed on $1.8 million for specialty court funding that wasn’t in the Senate bill.
On Tuesday morning the conference committee became the place where a revived, albeit noncontroversial, gun provision was steered. Gun legislation featured prominently on the legislative agenda this session, but House DFL leadership scuttled proposed changes to background check requirements for gun purchasers. Latz was able to get a bill passed in the Senate Finance Committee that would speed up the transfer of fingerprint records to the National Instant Background Check System. Latz intended to make the crime data proposal part of the conference committee bill.
The conference devoted some of its attention to a proposal to make fifth degree sexual assault a felony on the third offense. The crime is currently a misdemeanor. The House pushed to escalate the crime to a felony with the support of the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault. But that provision fell off the table.
Late Tuesday, the judiciary/public safety conference committee reached an agreement on funding for the courts. The conference report wasn’t immediately available on Wednesday afternoon because the conferees were waiting for the non-controversial Latz gun proposal to pass off the Senate floor.
One fee that did make it into the conference agreement is a court technology fee that would raise about $1.6 million for the biennium to enhance technological infrastructure in the court system. The money will be placed in a special revenue fund rather than the general fund.
When conferees on the omnibus jobs bill met on Monday, House conferees made the first offer. House conference Co-Chair Tim Mahoney, DFL-St. Paul, matched the Senate’s funding levels on a couple of key economic development programs.
The House increased its proposal for the Minnesota Investment Fund by $10 million to match the Senate at $30 million for the biennium. The House also increased its Job Creation Fund proposal by $6.5 million to match the Senate at $25 million. The House increased funding to the Minnesota Film & TV Board from $1.9 million to $3 million. That offer, however, lagged the Senate’s $10 million for the Film Board.
The Senate’s lead negotiator, Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, expressed disappointment in the Film Board offer as well as differences in approach to funding for several business development and workforce development grants.
The House and Senate also confronted differences over a policy change that stems from a number of employee lockouts in Minnesota. The House bill sought to add an extra three years of unemployment insurance benefits for locked-out workers.
Those differences were resolved in the conference report adopted on Wednesday morning: The Senate prevailed on the $10 million figure for the film board, and the House won six months’ worth of additional unemployment benefits for locked-out workers.
The conference report on the omnibus energy bill, posted online shortly before 1:30 a.m. on Tuesday, was adopted by the conference committee in an amended form on Tuesday evening. The House made significant concessions in bargaining down provisions contained in the bill that passed off the floor on May 8. The conference report requires investor-owned utilities in Minnesota to generate 1.5 percent of their electricity from solar sources by 2020, but it exempts the power that utilities sell to paper mills and taconite mines in northern Minnesota. The House bill, sponsored by Rep. Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, had called for a 4 percent solar standard by 2025.
The Senate bill, sponsored by Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, lacked the votes to pass the 4 percent out of that chamber’s Environment, Economic Development and Agriculture Finance Committee. Instead the Senate passed a 1 percent standard. Marty said that the bill would nonetheless result in increased solar capacity in the future.
“That’s a huge step forward from where we are now,” Marty said.
The House had planned to take up the conference report on the bill on the floor Tuesday afternoon. But that was derailed after rural electrical cooperatives and municipal electrical cooperatives objected to some of the bill’s provisions. A couple of amendments were adopted by the conference committee on Tuesday night to ensure its passage. The energy bill is being inserted into the omnibus environment bill.
On Tuesday the House and Senate began to conferee a pair of environment and natural resources bills that feature extensive funding and policy differences. Generally speaking, the Senate bill is sympathetic to timber and mining interests, while the House version reflects the priorities of the environmental wing of the DFL.
The House bill includes $6 million in fees to enable the state Department of Resources (DNR) to do increased monitoring of ground water levels, a provision that is not in the Senate version. Another House-only provision would raise $700,000 through aquatic plant management fees.
On Tuesday the environment conference committee became the venue for lawmakers to give the state bureaucracy regulatory powers over frac sand mining in southeastern Minnesota. Local government officials and environmental activists have supported legislation that would stop or considerably slow down permits to mine sand.
In particular, Sen. Matt Schmit, DFL-Red Wing, was pushing to get the game and fish bill amended on the Senate floor to prohibit silica sand mining within one mile of a trout stream. That proposal had the support of the Dayton administration but was opposed by the Senate, which had already stripped the provision from the game and fish bill once earlier in the session.
Rumors of a deal between Schmit, the Dayton administration and industry players began to circulate on Monday afternoon. Under the terms of that arrangement, Schmit agreed not to offer the 1-mile setback proposal and accepted language in conference committee that would require the DNR to conduct a hydro-geologic study and issue a permit for any silica sand mining within one mile of a trout stream. The environment conference committee on Tuesday night adopted the frac sand regulations into the environment bill. The environment conference report had yet to be adopted as of Wednesday morning.
Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul, who is a member of the environment conference committee, said the DNR permit proposal for trout streams doesn’t go far enough. “The House wants drinking water well protection. If we’re going to protect trout streams, we need to protect drinking water. And the House wants not just mining standards but [standards] on processing and temporary storage,” Hansen said.
The prospect for increased transportation funding for roads and transit has been an on-again, off-again proposition in the Senate for the last several weeks. Gov. Mark Dayton and the chairs of the House and Senate transportation finance committees have supported increasing the sales tax in the seven-county metro area to pay for transit projects in the region. But Dayton has consistently rebuffed any suggestion of increasing the gas tax to provide road and bridge funding for greater Minnesota, casting into doubt whether such a bill could win enough votes from rural legislators to secure passage.
The House passed a lights-on bill. The Senate DFL encountered louder discontent within its ranks about the prospects of leaving the session without doing something to outstate needs. Dayton and DFL legislative leaders met briefly on Tuesday afternoon to talk about their differences on transportation. Their talks appear didn’t yield any progress, however. House and Senate conferees were scheduled to sit down together for the first time on Wednesday morning.