Work continues for lawmakers as session comes to a close

State lawmakers have yet to pass an omnibus bill for higher ed spending, among other bills.

by Kevin Beckman

With a little more than three weeks left until the end of this year’s legislative session, lawmakers have expressed a mix of disappointment and cautious optimism about the outlook for the remainder of the year.
Legislators prioritized transportation, bonding and taxes at the beginning of the session, and leaders have covered different amounts of ground on each issue.
“With three weeks to go, not much has happened,” said House Minority Leader Rep. Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis. “All of the big things … remain to be completed, and it’s not clear to me what the path is to get there.”
With an estimated $16.3 billion funding shortfall needed to pay for transportation fixes over the next 20 years, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle emphasized the need for a comprehensive transportation package this session but have struggled to agree on how to pay for the repairs. 
A conference committee met last week to try to forge an agreement that reconciles the $7 billion proposal offered by the Republican-controlled House and the $11 billion pitch proposed by the DFL-controlled Senate. 
The House plan would redirect motor vehicle-related tax revenue away from the state’s general fund, use excess money from the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s budget and use some of the state’s projected $900 million budget surplus to pay for roads and bridges only. 
The Senate’s plan would raise money for roads, bridges and transit by implementing a new gas tax and raising a metro-area sales tax dedicated to transit from one-quarter to three-quarters of a cent. 
House Transportation committee chair Rep. Tim Kelly, R-Red Wing, said the committee’s meetings have been productive and leaders have made headway toward reaching an agreement. 
“We’ve all agreed on the scope of the need,” Kelly said. “We’ve really all reached agreement somewhere on that $7 to $8 billion dollar range over a 10-year time period. …
That’s why I feel so optimistic that we’re going to end up with a comprehensive plan. We just need to hammer out the details now.” 
Real ID
A bill to bring the state in compliance with the federal REAL ID law, which is required if Minnesotans want to board commercial flights by 2018, passed a House floor vote 125-2. The bill allows the state to research ways to best implement the beefed-up ID standards. 
Minnesota is one of five states and U.S. territories that has not been granted an extension by the federal government and is still not in compliance with the law. 
A second bill that would deal with full REAL ID implementation will likely be brought forward in coming weeks. Implementation is expected to cost the state more than $5 million. 
Republicans would like to use the state’s projected budget surplus to offer tax relief. 
A Republican tax relief bill includes proposals to phase out the tax on social security benefits and military pay, tax credits for people trying to save for college and pay off student loans, increasing deductions for families with school-aged children, and property tax relief for farmers and small businesses. 
House Tax Committee Vice-chair Rep. Bob Barrett, R-Taylors Falls, said the tax, transportation and bonding bills will be interlinked, and said he was “cautiously optimistic” that legislators will pass a bill this session. 
Gov. Mark Dayton proposed a $1.4 billion bonding package at the beginning of the session — the largest in state history — and Senate Democrats set the bar even higher with their bonding proposal released Monday
The Senate’s proposal calls for $1.5 billion in bonding, with emphasis on transportation, education and water and environmental infrastructure projects. 
But the House has called for a much smaller bonding package, somewhere in the range of $600 million. An official bonding proposal hasn’t been released yet because the bill will rely heavily on the outcomes of the tax and transportation bills, said Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, the House Capital Investment Committee chair. 
Thissen said it will be hard to reach a consensus on bonding until the House comes out with an official proposal. 
“Until people show their cards, it’s very hard to have any meaningful discussion,” Thissen said. “I think the next step absolutely needs to be that the House needs to put forward what they believe their $600 million bonding bill would look like.” 
Dayton’s proposal focuses on higher education, including more than $340 million for projects at University of Minnesota and Minnesota State Colleges and Universities campuses. The governor’s recommendations fulfill $153.3 million of the University’s $236.3 million requests. 
The Senate’s proposal would provide $160.7 million for the University and more than $170 million for MnSCU. 
Higher education 
The House higher education committee passed an omnibus bill last month that provided no increased spending for higher education. 
House DFLers expressed disappointment that the bill didn’t include any provisions for tuition relief or student debt. 
House Republicans, however, emphasized that 2016 is not a budget year and that some provisions in the Republican-backed tax bill would help people with student loan relief. 
“It may sound like we’re just not interested in anything, but I can’t name anything that can’t wait until next year,” said Rep. Bud Nornes, R-Fergus Falls, the House higher education committee chair. “If we could magically wave a wand and lower student tuition and all of those things that are still troubling, obviously, we’d do that. But I haven’t found that wand yet.”