Legislative leaders say the state’s financial situation may be stronger than recently predicted, but that news likely won’t make their work any easier when the 2018 session begins Feb. 20.
Those were among the takeaways from the annual pre-session briefing held Tuesday by Forum News Service that brought together House and Senate leaders, along with Gov. Mark Dayton, to answer questions about the upcoming legislative session.
The lawmakers spent an hour answering questions on a variety of topics, including legislative funding, sexual harassment policies and bonding.
They found common ground in a number of areas, including a unanimous prediction that the state will have a budget surplus to work with during the upcoming session rather than the $188 million deficit predicted several weeks ago in the 2017 November Budget and Economic Forecast.
Monday’s report that the state’s General Fund revenues were nearly 16 percent higher in January than had been predicted fueled that optimism.
The release of the February forecast, which, in part, is used by the Legislature and governor to ensure enacted budgets remain on track and in balance, is scheduled for Feb. 28. The four legislative leaders predict a surplus of between $600 million and $1 billion; Dayton did not give a specific number, but expects a surplus.
However, prospects for a quick resolution to the dispute over the Legislature’s funding that was waged in the courts during the latter half of 2017 may not be as sunny.
While the leaders agreed one of the Legislature’s first items of business when session begins is a bill that restores the House and Senate funding vetoed by Dayton last spring, differences remain on what that the bill should look like.
“I met with the governor right before Christmas and the first thing he brought up when we had lunch together was ‘first day, first week, whenever, pass a funding bill and send it and I’ll sign it,’” Daudt said. ”Our intent is not to add anything extra into that bill … not to try and use it for a vehicle for anything else but to just to use it as something to kind of close that chapter.”
Daudt said he expects the bill could “happen” within the first couple of weeks of the session.
But House Minority Leader Melissa Hortman (DFL-Brooklyn Park) said the speaker would need to “have a conversation” with her caucus about what the bill would look like, and “the other items of unfinished business that we left at the end of [the 2017] session” if he expects it to pass with any DFL votes.
“We definitely have a point of view of the importance of the work that was left undone and other components that should be included in an early bill,” Hortman said.
Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk (DFL-Cook) said the bill should include cost-of-living pay increases for the state’s public employees.
Harassment training and policies
Daudt and Hortman each voiced support for the daylong sexual harassment training seminar House members are scheduled to attend Feb. 21.
Although he could not force representatives to attend, Daudt said any members who did not would have their committee assignments taken away.
He also mentioned a new House subcommittee that has been created to analyze internal policies and external issues, and bring in outside experts for public hearings to hear concerns and learn more about improvements that can be made.
“What we’re striving for is no sexual harassment, a very comfortable respectful workplace for everyone,” Daudt said. “And we won’t stop until that happens.”
Hortman said she appreciates the additional training for members and thinks outside experts are a good idea as well, because the Legislature is “not doing such a hot job” of taking care of internal issues on its own.
She said it’s important members and staff understand the rules, procedures and process; that visitors to the Capitol have a clear and fair forum to report misconduct; and that laws for the rest of the workplaces in the state be examined to make sure they’re strong enough to offer the necessary protections.
The size of a potential bonding bill this session also caused some debate.
Dayton reiterated support for the $1.5 billion proposal he made in mid-January to fund a number of projects across the state, including infrastructure improvements at state colleges and universities.
Daudt said the Legislature passed “the largest bonding bill in state history” during the 2017 session to make up for not passing a bonding bill the previous year. He said it would take a bill of just over $800 million to get to the 10-year average for bonding expenditures but that he would be open to discussions about spending more or less.
Hortman said a “healthy sized” bonding bill is the single most important thing that can be done to create jobs in Minnesota.
“This is the time for the state to maximize its borrowing and get those projects underway,” Hortman said. “They are going to be more expensive in the future for two reasons – we know inflation is coming and we know interest rates are going up.”
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