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Legislative forecast: Cloudy with a chance of disputes

2017 dawned on the Minnesota Capitol with bright sun Sunday, Jan. 1, illuminating the newly renovated building.

But the sparkle dimmed as clouds moved in Sunday, followed by a dreary, wintry Monday for most Minnesotans.

Was that a forecast of things to come in the 2017 state Legislature, which began at noon Tuesday?

That is impossible to predict, but Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton and Republicans who control the Legislature have a stormy past.

"I think it will be a difficult session because we have very stark differences," Dayton said. "My approach is to stake out what I think is best for Minnesota, and we will see at the end of session if we can reach the agreements that we didn't make in 2011, which was catastrophic with the shutdown."

Those stark differences, especially with House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, were stormy in 2016. For instance, Dayton walked out on a public negotiations session with Daudt and the speaker admitted he yelled at the governor on the telephone.

No one is predicting a sunny legislative session, but leaders told reporters at a Forum News Service pre-session briefing last month that they should not write about a potential shutdown because one is unlikely. The last time Republicans controlled the House and Senate like this year was in Dayton's first year in office and they could not agree on a budget, closing much of state government for three weeks.

Dayton and legislative leaders' No. 1 job this year is writing a budget to fund the state for two years. They have said little in public about how they want that budget to look.

The state-funded portion of the budget that ends on June 30 will top $42 billion.

State workers got in some late unpacking and office arranging during the holiday weekend as the Capitol prepared for reopening after being mostly closed for three years. The $310 million inside-and-out renovation project has left the Capitol gleaming like it has not since it opened in 1905.

While restoration work is winding down, legislative work is winding up.

If writing a budget is their main job, lawmakers say their first job will be providing relief to thousands of Minnesotans who bought individual health insurance for 2017. Insurance premiums soared as many companies stopped providing insurance for people who do not get it from their employers or from government programs.

Also high on their agenda will be leftovers from last year's session: taxes and public works projects. They were to be considered in a special summer or fall legislative session, but Daudt and Dayton never agreed on specifics so it never happened.

Most lawmakers liked the tax bill, which combined a variety of tax cuts with increased local government aid from the state. The public works bill included road and bridge projects, but transportation and other state construction projects are expected to take different roads this year.

One factor that will frame this session is the fact that it will be Dayton's last chance to make his mark on the state after 40 years of public service. He says he does not plan to seek office again.

"It is my hope that the governor and his administration understand that this is the last two years of a long career for the governor and I would hope he would want to end his career on a high note," Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, said.

Dayton said he will propose more education spending, particularly for the youngest learners, but that the state cannot afford the universal kindergarten plan he had pushed in recent years.

He also promises to bring back a proposed gasoline tax increase to inject new money into transportation. While everyone seems to agree transportation needs billions more over the next decade, most Republicans say the state already collects enough taxes and does not need add taxes, just move around taxes already collected.

Dayton said he does not see a need to raise other taxes this year. Republicans are expected to seek tax cuts, saying a projected $1.4 billion budget surplus shows the state is collecting too much from Minnesotans.

The history of conflicts left Sen. David Tomassoni, D-Chisholm, sounding concerned.

"If negotiations between the speaker and the governor are any indication, the session is going to be rocky," Tomassoni predicted. "We had this same dynamic in 2011 and there was this government shutdown that was, I think, the longest in the history of the United States. I'm hoping that doesn't happen again. I'm hoping we get our work done."

Daudt promises that negotiations will be done in the light of day this year, like the light shining on the Capitol dome on New Year's Day.

"We need to do something differently," he said, adding that House-Senate conference committees will do the work that legislative leaders and the governor have done in closed-door talks.

Budget work late

Work toward Minnesota's two-year state budget is running late.

Gov. Mark Dayton told Forum News Service it is because of the time it took in a failed attempt to organize a special legislative session to deal with health insurance costs and leftover issues from the 2016 session.

"We are seriously in arrears because we have spent thousands of hours since the (Nov. 8) election trying to deal with this special session," Dayton said.

It was taking lots of time dealing with legislators in "far flung places" instead of being in their Capitol complex offices.

"We have a lot more to do," he said, but his budget proposal will be released as required on Jan. 24.

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