Minnesota lawmakers wrap up session with spending bill, tax cuts

Article by: Bill Salisbury, Pioneer Press

The Minnesota Legislature capped one of its most productive sessions in years Friday by passing a $1 billion public works construction package, voting to legalize medical marijuana and approving another round of tax cuts and spending increases.

Facing a Sunday deadline and after several days of contentious bargaining and late-night sessions, lawmakers adjourned -- the earliest in 30 years.

"I think we did get a tremendous amount accomplished this year," said House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, citing the earlier passage of a minimum wage increase, an anti-bullying bill and a first batch of tax cuts, in addition to the construction money and medical marijuana measure.

But looking back over two years of the session, House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said the Democratic-Farmer Labor majorities produced "one of the highest tax increases in state history. We have the highest spending increases in state history. ... It was frankly unnecessary."

Of all the bills passed this year, the massive public works package will impact the most Minnesotans.

It will fund the state's largest publicly subsidized housing program and spark a state college and university building spree. It provides $126 million to complete the restoration of the state Capitol, the largest single appropriation in the bill.

It also pumps money into parks and trails, prisons and hospitals, roads and bridges and dozens of economic develop projects sought by cities and counties.

The package came in two pieces: an $854 million bonding bill and a second measure that funded construction projects with $200 million in cash.

"It's the hardest bill I've ever had to pass," said Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, the veteran chairwoman of the House Capital Investment Committee.

It was tough for two reasons. First, it takes a three-fifths supermajority to pass bills that borrow money, so majority DFLers had line up support from at least eight Republicans in the House and two GOP senators to reach that threshold.

Second, DFL and Republican leaders agreed last year to an $846 million cap on the bonding bill. In previous years, Hausman said, the House proposed one set of building projects, the Senate a second set and the governor had a third batch of priorities. They typically worked out compromises by adding money to the bill.

But the cap this year meant the only room for compromise was to cut, she said, and each cut cost votes of lawmakers whose favored projects were dropped.

"I zeroed out Como Zoo, which is near and dear to my heart," Hausman said.

House and Senate leaders spent most of Thursday trying to cut a bonding deal while rank-and-file members waited on the floors of the chambers.

The key to breaking the gridlock was finding a way to extend the $67 million Lewis and Clark water pipeline to parched cities in southwestern Minnesota. DFLers included $22 million for the project in the bonding bill, but Republicans insisted on fully funding it.

House and Senate tax negotiators cobbled together a solution, providing the remaining $45 million by allowing the affected cities and counties to issue bonds and offering $2.2 million a year in state aid to cover two-thirds of the debt service payments.

With that deal in hand by early Thursday evening, the leaders asked Dayton to sign a letter pledging not to veto any of the projects.

He responded with a last-minute set of demands, including tougher pipeline safety requirements, more money for a "sober schools" initiative and legislation requiring disclosure of toxic materials in children's products.

At 2:15 a.m. Friday, even before Dayton signed a no-veto letter, Thissen brought up the bonding bill. The House passed it 45 minutes later on a 90-42 vote, with 12 Republicans voting "yes."

Fifteen minutes later, House members voted 82-50 for the bill that provides $200 million in cash for construction projects.

When the Senate convened after sunrise, it quickly passed the bonding bill, 47-17, with the help of 11 Republicans, and the cash-for-projects zipped through minutes later, 44-19.

The House and Senate overwhelmingly passed a $103 million tax cut a few hours later. The House voted unanimously and the Senate 59-1 for the measure that will increase property tax refunds this year for homeowners, renters and farmers. Many of them will receive refund checks in October.

Combined with the $447 million in income and sales tax cuts passed earlier this year, the latest round of tax relief means lawmakers will return $550 million of the state's $1.2 billion budget surplus to taxpayers.

Finally, lawmakers voted to spend $283 million to provide 5 percent rate increases for home and community-based health caregivers for the elderly and disabled, increase K-12 school aid and early childhood scholarships, expand broadband internet access across rural Minnesota and pour $10 million into patching highway potholes.

The House passed the budget bill 75-55; the Senate vote was 37-22.

Hausman and Senate Capital Investment Committee Chairman LeRoy Stumpf, DFL-Plummer, said they were most proud of providing $100 for the state's largest investment in affordable housing.

They said it would offer shelter for homeless people and help many communities with businesses that can't attract needed workers because of affordable housing shortages.

The bonding bill allocates $240 million to state colleges and universities for classrooms, laboratories and renovating existing facilities. The University of Minnesota would get $119 million, with another $121 million going to the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system.

Among the largest higher education projects, the U gets $57 million to renovate the Tate Laboratory building on the Minneapolis campus for its physics, astronomy and earth sciences programs, while $36 million was allocated to Metropolitan State University in St. Paul for its first science education building.

The U's St. Paul campus would get $9 million to build a new "bee lab" and upgrade its Aquatic Invasive Species Research Center.

Another $116 million would go into state hospitals and prisons. There's $56 million for upgrading and expanding the Minnesota Security Hospital in St. Peter and $7 million more for a Minnesota Sex Offender Program facility on the same campus.

The Shakopee women's prison would finally get a $5 million perimeter security fence, and the St. Cloud prison would get an $18 million upgrade.

Cities and counties would split a total of $87 million for local roads and bridges. Ramsey County would get up to $29 million for road improvements at the Twin Cities Army Ammunition Plant redevelopment in Arden Hills.

After years of trying, three outstate cities would finally land state grants for civic center expansions: $35 million for Rochester, $14.5 million for Mankato and $11.6 million for St. Cloud.

Minneapolis would get $21.5 million to remake the Nicollet Mall.

Read the original article at Pioneer Press.