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Analysis: Legislature faces many hurdles before finish line

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ST. PAUL -- Republicans in charge of the Minnesota House and Senate join with Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton in expressing optimism, or at least hope, that they can work out a two-year budget before the May 23 constitutional legislative adjournment date.

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House and Senate negotiators have worked out most differences in eight spending bills and one tax bill they have passed, but little has been done to pave over differences between Dayton and Republicans.

The state's policymakers face lots of obstacles to a neat session wrap-up, including:

Budget battle

The biggest job of the legislative session, which started Jan. 4, is to write a two-year budget while filling a $5 billion deficit.

Republicans who control the Legislature want to spend no more than $34 billion, about what the state is on track to receive in taxes and other revenues. Dayton's budget plan tops $37 billion, with tax increases on the richest Minnesotans.

Other issues

They do not need to be done, but many other issues remain unresolved, including potential approval of a much-discussed Vikings football stadium.

Also left are several proposed constitutional amendments, including those to require photo identification at the polls, preventing gay marriages, making it harder to raise taxes and limiting state budget increases.

Numerous newbies

Dayton has been in office since a day before the Legislature convened, so no one knows how he will negotiate with Republicans who hold majorities in the House and Senate.

At the same time, no legislative leader has been in that position before. Thirty-three of the House's 72 Republicans are new members this year. Of the 37 Senate Republicans, 21 are new.

With so many people with so little state government experience, no one knows what to expect in the legislative session's final days.

Caffeinated Tea Party

Most new Republicans in both chambers come from the conservative and libertarian Tea Party branch of the party.

They come to the Legislature with an attitude that state government is too big and costly. Many of the new members think their leadership's $34 billion, two-year budget proposal is too rich, and dislike Dayton's $37 billion budget plan even more.

Tax increases are completely out of the picture for Tea Party advocates and their opinions matter since they hold many Republican votes.

Lefty liberals

Democratic-Farmer-Laborites controlled the House for the past eight years and the Senate for nearly 40 years, and liberals hold much power in the party.

Even though Democrats no longer run either chamber, they continue to control enough votes to prevent Republicans from overriding most Dayton vetoes. If vetoes cannot be overturned, the only way out of the legislative session is for Dayton and Republicans to negotiate.

Controlling caucuses

In theory, moderates from both parties could get together and pass budget plans between the two extremes.

But those moderates generally are restrained by Republican and DFL caucuses, the private groups of legislators in each party that discuss issues behind closed doors and often make decisions about how to vote on issues.

Members who deviate from caucus positions on major issues can be punished. For instance, in 2008 six Republicans voted against party leaders for a transportation bill that increased taxes. Many lost GOP support, including leadership roles.

Dayton factor

The governor has been around government for decades, but is an unknown factor in session-ending negotiations.

Unlike many other governors, Dayton does not owe his Democratic Party or special interest groups anything, allowing him to make decisions with little outside political pressure. The party did not allow him into its 2010 state convention because he was challenging the chosen DFL candidate, and he did not rely heavily on traditional DFL sources for campaign funds.

While his shallow connection with party leaders gives him freedom, at the same time many of Dayton's political stances match those of other Democrats.

Special session

If a state budget is not approved by the end of May 23, lawmakers would need to return to session.

The governor has sole power in calling a special session, and most people think Dayton would not call lawmakers back to the Capitol unless he and legislative leaders had reached a firm budget agreement.

Special sessions on a Vikings stadium and re-drawing political district lines also could occur.

Government shutdown

The real deadline for a new state budget is June 30, the end of the current two-year budget.

If that date passes and the state budget remains undecided (the agriculture funding bill is the only segment of the budget that has passed and become law), parts of state government would begin to shut down.

Some government work would continue even if the Legislature takes no action; tax collections and school funding are two examples. But most spending would stop, other than essential services such as law enforcement. Parks could close on the July 4 holiday weekend, for instance.

Concluding it

Of course, how the budget gets done is the main legislative question.

Will it happen with traditional meetings among legislative leaders and the governor? Will legislators who are not caucus leaders emerge with new ideas? Will the two sides not agree, other than something like Congress and the president often end up doing: Pass a temporary spending bill?

Stay tuned. Answers to those and other questions are coming. Some day.

Don Davis reports for Forum Communications Co.

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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.
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