After days of talks, and only hours after Gov. Mark Dayton offered legislative leaders specific numbers, budget negotiations changed gears late Monday night with a flurry of activity that may signal either a search for middle ground or the beginning of a prolonged stalemate less than two weeks before the 2017 regular session must end.
Comments from Republican leaders Tuesday morning seemed to indicate that, while either option is still a possibility, talks to arrive at a budget funding state government for the next two years have reached a critical crossroads.
House Speaker Kurt Daudt (R-Crown) and Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka (R-Nisswa) both said the pace of negotiations must quicken or the Legislature will not get its work done by the May 22 deadline.
“We have frustration at the slow pace the governor is proceeding with,” Daudt said. “We certainly understand where his priorities are. But we also know that the governor gains leverage if he pushes us to the end.”
Gazelka said Republican lawmakers became concerned negotiations seemed to slow over the weekend and Daudt said the funding targets Dayton offered Monday for the omnibus higher education, agriculture, economic development and public safety bills were “micro-steps” that could not be seriously considered.
In response, Republicans in the House and Senate met Monday night and reached agreement on a series of conference committee reports that were subsequently published and could be voted on as soon as Tuesday.
The posted conference committee reports include the omnibus public safety, taxes, health and human services, jobs and energy, state government, environment and natural resources, agriculture and higher education bills.
Daudt said Republicans are preparing a back-up plan in case negotiations fail, but would prefer the talks continue. He added that although the bills are ready to go to the floor ”if we don’t make real progress very soon … basically, immediately,” legislative leaders would be “willing to adjust” them if middle ground is reached.
“We hope that we can make progress, that we don’t have to send these bills to the governor,” Daudt said. “But we’d hoped we’d be a lot farther along after our break and, unfortunately, we aren’t.”
Dayton, expecting counteroffers from Republican legislators in response to his updated budget proposals released yesterday, said closing up the conference committee reports came as “a complete surprise.” Dayton said he would veto every bill if the Legislature passes them without changes.
“It signals to me that they’re pulling out of our negotiations, which are intended to avoid the necessity for the bills to go to the floor, then come to me to be vetoed and then go back to right where we are today,” he said.
“They’re setting up this blame game and I don’t think more time is our problem,” Dayton said.
DFL leaders, who have been in negotiations with Republicans and the governor, stood beside Dayton during the morning press conference, echoing his concerns about the seemingly abrupt finalized reports.
House Minority Leader Melissa Hortman (DFL-Brooklyn Park) and Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk (DFL-Cook) indicated they knew something was coming late Monday after Republican conference committee chairs asked their DFL counterparts to sign their respective reports.
“I actually believe it’s just a sideshow,” Bakk said. “The real negotiations are going to happen with the governor involved and if they don’t happen with the governor involved, then the session is going to collapse.”
House Public Information Services writer Ricky Campbell also contributed to this story