ST. PAUL, Minn. — Minnesota’s legislative leaders promised a fresh start when the Legislature resumes next week, but the months-long legal battle over funding and another potential lawsuit that could remove a GOP senator and trigger a fight for control of the Senate still looms large over the start of session.
Lawmakers will have just three months to tackle a long to-do list, including making changes to align Minnesota’s tax code with the recently enacted federal tax cuts, fixing the state’s new computer system for driver’s licenses and plates after its botched rollout, and approving hundreds of millions of dollars in public construction projects. But in a short legislative session constrained by election-year politics, the lawsuits could shape the session’s work when lawmakers return to the Capitol next Tuesday.
Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton and the Republican-controlled Legislature ended last year’s session with fireworks as Dayton vetoed the House and Senate’s $130 million operating budget while signing the remainder of a $46 billion budget. A GOP lawsuit wound through the courts, with the state Supreme Court eventually forcing the Legislature to hobble into 2018 while running on reserve funds.
Dayton and Republican legislative leaders publicly made amends Tuesday while discussing the upcoming session at the Capitol as Dayton vowed to sign a bill restoring their funding soon after lawmakers return to St. Paul.
But it’s not a done deal. Democratic Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk indicated he’ll try to lump in approval of new contracts with raises for 30,000 state employees— a sore spot between the two parties.
“I want to sign the bill. I want to put it all behind us,” Dayton said.
But all eyes next week will be on GOP Senate President Michelle Fischbach, who ascended to become Dayton’s lieutenant governor earlier this year. Thrust into the position when Dayton appointed Tina Smith to the U.S. Senate, Fischbach has fought to keep her Senate seat while Democrats say she must leave the Legislature.
The stakes are high. Fischbach’s removal would leave the Senate deadlocked at 33-33 and force a special election that would decide the majority. Democrats won a special election in a suburban St. Paul Senate district Monday, preserving their hopes of taking back control of the Chamber.
A Ramsey County judge dismissed a lawsuit from one of Fischbach’s constituents on Monday, saying it was filed too early. Bakk was coy about when Democrats may try again.
But Republican Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said he expects the dispute to land back in court, and warned it could throw the Legislature into disarray.
“They have a desire to take over the Senate. We’re going to fight,” he said. “It just complicates the whole session if they go that route.”
Lawmakers have major work to do when they return.
All legislative leaders agreed a top priority was fixing the state’s tax code to square with federal changes, ensuring Minnesota residents don’t face a logistical nightmare between state and federal tax returns next year. But a handful of the tax overhaul’s changes could hit some Minnesota residents and business owners with tax increases, so lawmakers are hoping to work out additional tweaks to protect those taxpayers.
“Everybody’s still trying to figure that out,” House Speaker Kurt Daudt said.
Once expecting a modest budget deficit, Dayton and top lawmakers agreed Tuesday they’d likely have a healthy budget surplus for 2018. A final update on the state budget was expected early next month.
Top information technology officials hope to get extra money for MNLARS, the troubled new mainframe that has frustrated consumers with delays and glitches since its summer launch. The state is asking for $43 million to make needed repairs to the system. A frustrated Gazelka said lawmakers may have no choice but to pay up.
“We’re far enough down the hole that we have to finish it,” Gazelka said.