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Dayton, legislative leaders say they can't agree to terms for special session

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton (left) and Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk announce on Thursday, Aug. 18, 2016, that there will be no special legislative session to pass a tax bill and fund public works projects. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

ST. PAUL — Farmers can forget about tax breaks to lighten their burden in funding new schools. Drivers on some of Minnesota's most dangerous highways will not see immediate safety improvements. New state aid that cities expected is not coming.

Those are three of many repercussions as Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton and legislative leaders said Thursday, seemingly definitively, that they have failed to agree on a special session agenda. As it has been since the regular session adjourned in May, the final stumbling block was whether to build a light rail project in the southwestern Twin Cities.

"I've concluded ... I am not going to call a special session," Dayton, a Democrat, said Thursday following a brief negotiation session.

House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said the GOP is disappointed there will be no special session because Minnesotans will miss out on $500 million of tax cuts and nearly $1 billion in funding for public works projects, including $700 million for road and bridge work.

Dayton vetoed the $800 million tax bill, much of which would trim taxes, after a $100 million error was found.

Besides cutting farm owners' property taxes that go to building new schools, the tax bill would have provided tax relief to college students, veterans, parents and other Minnesotans.

Nearly $1 billion in public construction projects died in the final minutes of the regular legislative session over the southwestern Twin Cities light rail dispute that eventually derailed the special session.

The public works bill would have paid $700 million for road and bridge improvements, focused on some of the state's most dangerous highways. The rest would have gone to hundreds of projects across the state, including improving water and sewer systems and fixing state-owned buildings.

The two bills had strong bipartisan support, but the southwest light rail project long has divided Democrats, who support it to improve the economy and relieve traffic congestion, and Republicans, who say it is a waste of money and has not been properly vetted.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said he gave Daudt options to fund light rail that Republicans might be able to stomach. However, Bakk said, "they have made no kind of a counteroffer of any kind."

Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, said he questions the process Democrats used to advance light rail. It received little attention during the regular session, he said, despite the fact that it would require four times the public investment that the long-debated Vikings stadium received.

"It is past the point where we can have any more fruitful discussions," Dayton said Thursday, with the 2017 regular session due to begin in January.

Daudt says he has a good relationship with Dayton, but had harsh words for the governor after the announcement there would be no special session. "What I am seeing here, frankly, is sandbox politics. ... We shouldn't throw our sucker in the sand and then go away."

The lack of a special session will play big in this year's elections, although the speaker and governor said they have not made decisions based on the fall vote, in which all 201 legislative seats are on the ballot — but not Dayton.

House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, said it was a "disappointing day."

He turned his attention to the fall elections. "A House DFL majority will bring a robust bonding bill and middle class tax relief to the House floor for a vote in the first 30 days of the next legislative session," Thissen said.

Among the Northland bonding requests that for now will go unfulfilled were:

  • $21 million to replace a faltering steam heat system in downtown Duluth
  • All of Dayton's $220 million clean water protection package, including multimillion-dollar water and sewer upgrades for Rice Lake, Scanlon, Chisholm, Ely, Keewatin, Deer River, Warba and Kabetogama.
  • More than $21 million for a new Chemistry and Advanced Materials Science Building at the University of Minnesota Duluth.
  • $12.7 million to help clean up additional polluted hotspots and restore habitat on the St. Louis River estuary in Duluth.
  • $8.1 million for a combined heat and power system running on biogas produced in the sewage treatment process at the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District.
  • $8 million for the Essentia Health Regional Wellness Center project in Hermantown to serve southern St. Louis County.
  • $5.9 million for runway improvements at Duluth International Airport.
  • $10 million to reconfigure the campus at Hibbing Community College.
  • $8 million for Lake Vermilion-Soudan Underground Mine State Park.
  • $1.9 million for improvements to the Lake Superior Zoo.
  • $3.4 million for the U.S. Highway 53 relocation project in Virginia; the city of Virginia had faced a cost overrun of that amount for the associated relocation of lines that provide gas, water and sewer service to the Midway neighborhood.

“I’m incredibly disappointed in today’s news given how much was at stake for critical Northland projects,” state Sen. Roger Reinert, DFL-Duluth, said in a news release Thursday. “Millions of dollars are now in limbo and will have to wait until next summer’s construction season to be addressed — at the earliest. Bonding bills address infrastructure needs across the state and we have now failed to do this most basic work of the Legislature.

“I hope that the November elections will send a Legislature to St. Paul that will pass a robust bonding bill early in the 2017 session,” said Reinert, who is not seeking re-election this year. “This is certainly not how I wanted to end my legislative service.”

The News Tribune contributed to this report.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.