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Capitol Chatter: Lawmakers face no must-do issues

Minnesota state Rep. Paul Marquart of Dillworth goes through paperwork on Friday, May 11, 2018, while serving as a legislative tax negotiator. Don Davis / Forum News Service1 / 2
A Minnesota House-Senate conference committee meets Friday, May 11, 2018. Negotiators were trying to work out a compromise between their two bills so it could pass before ithe legislative deadline eight days away. Don Davis / Forum News Service2 / 2

ST. PAUL—Minnesotans watching the final days of the Legislature need to remember one thing: There is nothing lawmakers must do.

There is plenty they would like to do, but if they just go home today, little will change in the state. That is quite different from an odd-numbered year when they must approve a budget or state government would shut down.

Perhaps the most complex issue is the one legislators will push the hardest to pass, a tax bill.

This is not your run-of-the-mill tax bill. The main goal of the 2018 legislation is to match state law with new federal law so Minnesotans do not end up paying much higher taxes.

Minnesota has based its tax law on federal law, so when federal law changes it can affect how much Minnesota citizens pay. Next year, after the biggest federal change in a generation, most Minnesota taxpayers would feel the change in their state returns if lawmakers do nothing.

The House and Senate passed similar bills, and Gov. Mark Dayton's plan was not that far off the Republican-controlled Legislature. But when it comes to taxes, even a little difference can be hard to overcome.

House Tax Chairman Greg Davids, R-Prescott, said that as far as he is concerned the bill is a must-pass one.

Normally, a budget bill also is one that should pass, but this year it is a complicated issue. Since it is not a year in which a full budget is needed, the effort mostly is how to spend the $329 million expected surplus. That is far smaller than the $46 billion budget lawmakers passed last year.

The complication comes in the way the bill is put together. Pretty much all spending bills, along with most major policy measures, were combined into one massive piece of legislation. With Dayton threatening to veto any bill that contains a provision he does not like, that puts the entire supplemental budget in danger.

Even-numbered years usually focus on public works financing. While Dayton offered a $1.5 billion proposal (which grows to $2.3 billion when factoring in local projects that he wants, but did specifically put in his plan) long ago, the House and Senate announced their $825 million legislation in recent days.

It always is good for legislators to pass a bonding bill before an election, like House members face this November. But since the bill needs both Republican and Democratic votes, it stands a chance of failing.

Several bills are on the bubble, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, said.

Among bills with lots of support but maybe not enough to pass this year is one combating the opioid painkiller abuse epidemic. Another would fight abuse of elderly in nursing homes. A third would reform pensions.

One measure that has gained notice lately would ban drivers from holding a mobile phone, or maybe any electronic device. Some form of gun legislation likely will be discussed, at least as an amendment to another bill, but any gun law changes will be more than an uphill fight.

Legislation on the bubble could pass, but as legislative leaders turn all of their attention to the big bills, it is likely that in many cases the bubble will burst.

Good money news

Minnesota's budget looks to be improving.

The state reports that revenues increased $252 million above expectations in April. That normally means people are making and spending more money.

"This report is more good news that our state's economy is strong," Chairman Jim Knoblach, R-St. Cloud, of the House Ways and Means Committee said. "It also provides further evidence that the February forecast was unduly pessimistic, and that the state and federal tax cuts promoted by Republicans have helped our economy."

However, state budget officials always warn that good or bad numbers in a single month do not mean there is a trend.

Governments trim lobbying

Local governments spent 4 percent less on lobbying n 2017.

State Auditor Rebecca Otto released a report saying that local governments spent $8.8 million on lobbying last year.

More than 100 local governments, such as cities and counties, paid lobbyists to influence state lawmakers. In some cases, the governments pay lobbyists directly, in other cases dues to organizations include lobbying fees.

Using the sun

A solar array on the roof of the Minnesota Senate Building is producing electricity for the state Capitol complex.

State officials say the panels will save the state $18,000 a year and the installation cost will be paid back in about 17 years.

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.