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Legislators talk education, transportation at Session Outlook

Four legislative leaders, a dogged moderator, a 90-minute event and a captive and highly informed audience of a few hundred people: On paper, Fredrikson & Byron’s Session Outlook event should have served as a behind-the-scenes blueprint for the next Legislature. But such is the nature of divided government and political debate that those in attendance Dec. 11 could be forgiven if they came away with more questions than answers.

Though senior representatives of the four caucuses eschewed specifics and occasionally fell into well-worn campaign tropes, the debate at least set the stage for some of the major themes that should begin to emerge come January. At issue, first, foremost and, more likely than not, last: How the state should handle roughly $1 billion in surplus revenue as it sets another two-year budget.

Republicans were represented by Senate Minority Leader David Hann and current House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt. It was Daudt’s third consecutive appearance at the preview event, but his first with all eyes on him; Daudt, whose roster of Republican candidates won 72 seats in November’s election, was the only majority caucus leader present on the dais.

Democrats were represented by Sen. Katie Sieben, DFL-Newport, who filled in for Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, and Rep. Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Center, a caucus leader on issues relating to energy, law and consumer protection. TPT anchor Mary Lahammer served as moderator, first asking questions of her own before taking queries submitted by audience members.

Asked to outline his top priorities, Daudt named a pair of topics that he later admitted had been beyond his expertise when he first came to the Legislature in 2011, picking facets of health and human services and education as most pressing.

The House Speaker-designate said funding for nursing home care is something his caucus wanted to “really dig into.” Advocates have already begun to rally around another “5 percent campaign,” modeled on the successful 2014 push for additional state spending. Daudt, for his part, wondered aloud if the state would consistently need to pass 5 percent boosts every two years, and said the creation of the new House Aging and Long-Term Care Policy Committee as a “great start” toward finding a less sporadic approach.

Daudt also pinpointed the achievement gap between black and white students as worthy of attention, though he argued that more funding for ailing schools was not the solution.

“Money has not been the problem,” Daudt said. “[The problem] has been the reforms that Democrats have refused to allow to happen to our education system.”

On the same topic, both Hortman and Sieben expressed their caucuses’ desire to expand early childhood education programs, and Hortman said she was confident Gov. Mark Dayton would push that idea as part of his budget proposal. Daudt observed that most Republicans are generally supportive of pre-K and all-day kindergarten, though he would have preferred to see local school districts given greater flexibility on how they participate, if at all.

The fact that Dayton will present his budget to a Republican House, echoing the situation that ultimately led to the 2011 government shutdown, was not lost on the panelists. Hann made the case that legislators should sign-off on a fallback bill identical to the current budget, which would automatically go into effect if the various branches could not reach a deal by the beginning of the 2016 fiscal year. Daudt, for his part, said that idea was “not necessarily” needed, but said he would consider it.

Aside from agreeing on a budget package, serious discussion around transportation spending is almost certain to have a central role in the coming legislative term. Sieben said Senate Democrats would continue to press for new revenue for infrastructure and maintenance, adding that a one-penny increase in the gasoline sales tax would generate about $30 million annually. Sieben also said a gas tax has been incorrectly framed as paying for Twin Cities rail lines, when, in fact, the money is constitutionally dedicated to roads and bridges.

“It’s politically popular, it seems, to talk about how raising gas taxes will go to build out light rail transit – and that’s simply not the case,” Sieben said.

Hann, meanwhile, said legislators should “absolutely” consider setting aside a portion of the next bonding bill for highway spending. Daudt went further still, saying he could imagine up to half of a roughly $1 billion capital investment bill directed at transportation. Hortman disagreed, referring back to a borrowing plan approved by Gov. Tim Pawlenty which eventually saw exorbitant interest payments consuming money that was had been meant for road maintenance.

“[Borrowing] doesn’t deal with, comprehensively, the problem of increasing investment in transportation infrastructure,” said Hortman, whose caucus would have to provide nine votes to reach the three-fifths majority required for a capital investment bill.

Daudt said Democrats had two years of total control if they had wanted to pass a gas tax, but said they flinched at taking the “incredibly unpopular” move. Asked by Lahammer if Daudt would excuse a handful of Republicans to vote along with Democrats, as happened in the infamous “Override Six” vote in 2008, Daudt said, “It’s probably not going to happen.”

Submitted audience questions covered topics that are often left to the federal government, including immigration and climate change; on both, the two Republican leaders expressed little appetite to pursue state-level legislation next year.

Responding to an audience question on medical marijuana, both Daudt and Sieben said they would prefer to see how the limited program approved earlier this year is implemented before broadening the drug’s availability.

Asked to float a potential “sleeper” issue that might surprise Capitol watchers this year, Daudt picked Sunday liquor sales. The one-time perennial loser has gained traction in recent years, and Daudt ascribed the trend to organizational support behind a public campaign. Neither he nor Sieben could predict how their caucus stands on the contentious topic. Hortman, for her part, made a connection from the political to the personal: “[Passing Sunday sales] would help me secure my husband’s vote.”

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