Legislature zips through votes to reopen state government
ST. PAUL -- Minnesota's longest government shutdown is poised to end after state legislators Tuesday night rushed through a series of spending bills.
While ending the shutdown, the bills fund state government for two years. They keep health-care funding flowing to poor, disabled and elderly Minnesotans; maintain steady aid to cities (including keeping aid for Duluth, St. Paul and Minneapolis that Republicans wanted to eliminate); cut college and university funding 10.5 percent; and fund nearly $500 million in public works projects around the state.
Tuesday night's action came in machine gun-like fashion as Minnesota legislators rushed through a dozen bills en route to passing a budget spending $35.7 billion in the next two years. Debate was expected to last until late night or into Wednesday.
The rapid-fire House and Senate action, which took as little as three minutes on one funding bill, means 22,000 state workers will return to their jobs and services that halted when state leaders could not agree on a budget will resume.
Once lawmakers approve the budget bills, and Gov. Mark Dayton signs them, the shutdown will end. However, Dayton said it will take time for state offices to fully reopen.
Suspended state services range from parks to a variety of license services, from beer-buying permits to horse-racing track regulators.
Late Tuesday morning, Democrat Dayton, flanked by Republican leaders House Speaker Kurt Zellers and Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch, announced the special session was scheduled for four hours later.
"We worked very, very hard, literally around the clock ... for the last four days and nights," Dayton said.
The three agreed to set strongly held positions aside to put state government back to work.
Dayton broke a lengthy budget impasse Thursday when he suggested passing a borrowing plan, with some changes, that Republicans originally suggested June 30 to increase state spending instead of the governor's idea to increase taxes. That put into motion the intense budget-writing negotiations held in the closed Capitol, out of public view.
The full budget would spend $34.3 billion in state general fund money in the next two years, 5.8 percent more than the just-ended budget. However, spending would be $35.7 billion when the borrowing plan is included.
One borrowing mechanism would use future payments from a tobacco lawsuit settlement to repay $640 million of bonds. The other plan delays $700 million in state payments to schools, freeing up the money for state programs.
The borrow-and-delay plan that the GOP suggested to allow for more spending provoked the most debate of the night.
"We are making promises we can't keep with money we don't have," Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, said.
He said the tax bill that contains the borrowing plan will force local property taxes up $367 million. "This, make no mistakes about it, is going to hit communities around the state."
Even though the budget is the largest in state history, programs across government will experience cuts to make way for soaring costs in many health-care programs.
The health and human services funding bill is up 11.6 percent from the last budget to $11.3 billion, meaning no one should lose state-funded medical care, Rep. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, said.
The special session was limited to budget, public works construction and related bills. A new Vikings football stadium was not part of the session and Dayton did not promise to call one later this year.
Zellers, R-Maple Grove, called bills before lawmakers "the essence of compromise." Koch, R-Buffalo, said the special session culminates seven months of the two sides pushing very different budget philosophies.
Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said that bills considered in the special session were better than ones Republicans passed with few Democratic votes during the regular legislative session that ended May 23.. He said those earlier bills included large cuts to services Minnesotans want.
In many budget areas, Republicans who control the Legislature offered most of the "yes" votes, with Democrats opposing most bills. Republicans said little about their bills.
Lawmakers spent little time debating the bills, which mostly were vetted earlier in the year, but those affected were not happy with some of the spending levels.
A $253 million outdoors and environment bill concerned environmentalists.
"Although we are grateful that overall state general fund spending has increased for our great outdoors compared to the Legislature's (original) proposals, funding to protect our lakes, rivers, streams, habitat and parks is still severely cut," said Steve Morse, executive director of the Minnesota Environmental Partnership.
College and university leaders were not happy with 10.5 percent cuts, even though $60 million was added to the amount lawmakers passed in May.
"State support for the University of Minnesota has now dipped back to 1998 levels, despite the fact that we train Minnesota's best and brightest future employees, that we are the driver of the state's robust agriculture business, that we are the engine for job creation statewide, that we are the foundation for the vitality of the state's arts, culture and Minnesota's quality of life," university President Eric Kaler said.
A public works financing bill borrows $498 million, with colleges and universities getting much of the money to renovate buildings.
Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system campuses will receive nearly $98 million, while the University of Minnesota is in line for $89 million.
Flood prevention efforts are funded at $51 million.
A dam at Coon Rapids, in the northwestern Twin Cities, gets $16 million to stop destructive Asian carp from moving up the Mississippi River and into northern Minnesota waters.
Here are votes on budget bills available at press time:
Public safety and courts, Senate, 57-7; House, 77-51.
Transportation, House, 71-56; Senate, 38-27.
Higher education, House, 71-57; Senate, 35-30.
Environment, Senate, 43-22; House, 71-57.
Jobs-economic development, Senate, 42-23; House, 76-50.
Legacy (clean water, arts, outdoors programs), Senate, 63-0.
Taxes, House, 71-57.
Don Davis reports for Forum Communications Co.