Legislative leaders aired differences over transportation and taxes Monday at the annual Fredrikson & Byron Session Outlook event in St. Paul.
On the rostrum to discuss the session that starts March 8 were House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown; Senate Deputy Majority Leader Jeff Hayden, DFL-Minneapolis; House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis; and Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie.
Most responses at the event, which took place at the InterContinental St. Paul Riverfront, differed by party of respondent. Daudt and Hann said transportation and tax bills needn’t be intertwined, while Hayden and Thissen saw that as inevitable. The Republicans envisioned a transportation bill made up of roads and bridges funding both parties could agree to, while Thissen stood by his recent charge that GOP lawmakers were being held hostage by Tea Party opposition to transit funding.
“We’ve got 10 weeks of session,” Daudt said. “Let’s not spend that fighting.”
The state’s shrinking budget surplus announced Friday with the February forecast — down more than $300 million, from $1.2 billion last November to $900 million now — meant panelists felt hemmed in not only by the shortness of the session.
Hayden cited areas where he said there could be consensus on spending: expanding rural broadband, helping unemployed Iron Range steel workers, and shrinking racial economic disparities.
“I don’t know how we go home without doing some broadband spending,” Thissen said.
Thissen also pushed policy changes he said would help working families but carried no state price tag: earned sick and safe leave for workers, as well as paid time off.
But that kind of mandate would hurt businesses, said Hann, who added that even a reduced $900 million surplus should mean tax cuts. That approach would help the state economy by leading to more private-sector buying and spending, said Daudt, adding he didn’t foresee increases in spending beyond the road-and-bridge projects.
Moderator Mary LaHammer, state Capitol reporter at TPT, kept the panelists on their toes, peppering them with questions and interrupting them to dig deeper into issues.
Pressed by LaHammer on whether Wisconsin’s more anemic economy meant Minnesota’s current approach was better, Hann said he didn’t know about Wisconsin but Minnesota could do better.
Hayden said he watches the progress of criminal justice reforms “keenly” and was concerned about efforts by Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, to halt changes to the state’s sentencing guidelines that are set to take effect in August.
Daudt said the state should “exhaust all options” involving use of a closed, privately built prison in Appleton before spending on bricks-and-mortar expansions of state-owned prison facilities.
Asked to give a preferred size of a bonding package, Hayden joked that Sen. LeRoy Stumpf, chair of the Senate Capital Investment Committee, had a wish list totaling about $3.4 billion. Thissen said bonding in the range of $1 billion to $1.2 billion seemed reasonable to expect. Hann put the figure in the $700 million to $750 million range.
LaHammer sought comment on sleeper issues — something other than the big transportation, taxes and bonding bills where most of the session’s focus will likely lie.
Only Hayden thought loosening of state laws on marijuana is in order, linked to his interest in criminal-justice reforms. A more widely shared feeling was efforts to lift the Sunday ban on liquor sales are gaining ground.
But Daudt said the shortness of the 10-week session will make it difficult for progress on any such sleeper topics.
The speaker also sketched out how House floor sessions would take place in an otherwise closed Capitol building, with accommodations for the public in alcoves, and pages available to run messages from a live TV viewing room in the State Office Building.
All agreed the Legislature would begin to lift bans on state agencies working on compliance with federal REAL ID requirements, and there appeared to be bipartisan interest in support for efforts to counter terror-recruitment, which Hayden likened to Minnesota’s past experience with “the Bloods and the Crips” gangs.
In response to an audience question on amending the Minnesota Constitution to take legislative pay-raise power away from legislators, who are loathe to use it, Hayden said “we’re losing good people” because of low pay. The Legislature has young people, wealthy people and retired people, but few in the middle, he said. Thissen said he was skeptical pay would increase even with the proposed amendment. Hann said he had no position but added that he sees the problem early on, in the candidate-recruitment process.
None of the panelists jumped to respond to an audience question about Donald Trump’s success so far in seeking the Republican presidential nomination. But Hann offered that Trump would not prevail in Minnesota’s caucuses, and Hayden called Trump’s rise “an indictment of extremes.” He posed an analogy to Gov. Jesse Ventura’s term, which he said “didn’t go too well.”