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On Tuesday morning, members of the Health and Human Services conference committee met for the eighth time since forming last month to merge the House and Senate proposals. But that busy schedule shouldn't be seen as an indication that the committee will soon be forwarding a bill to Gov. Mark Dayton for consideration.

Conference committees get little done as Legislature, Dayton remain at loggerheads

 Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

Sen. David Hann (left), chairman of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, and Rep. Jim Abeler, chairman of the House HHS Finance Committee, face a protracted standoff with Gov. Mark Dayton over the state budget. (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

On Tuesday morning, members of the Health and Human Services conference committee met for the eighth time since forming last month to merge the House and Senate proposals. But that busy schedule shouldn’t be seen as an indication that the committee will soon be forwarding a bill to Gov. Mark Dayton for consideration.

That’s because the committee has yet to approve a single line of the legislation. On Friday it’s slated to take action on some parts of the House and Senate bills that are largely identical. No meetings are scheduled for the weekend, despite the less than three weeks that remain before the Legislature is constitutionally required to adjourn.

“There will be a little more heavy lifting next week,” promised Sen. David Hann, chairman of the Health and Human Services Committee, at the close of Tuesday’s meeting. “I expect a lot of work from members.”

The mantra from Republican legislative leaders throughout the session has been that they are way ahead of schedule in terms of crafting a budget that eliminates the state’s $5 billion deficit. Indeed, both chambers pushed through all of their finance bills by the close of the first week in April.

But since then, progress seems to have ground almost completely to a halt. Only the agriculture finance bill – which traditionally creates little controversy and has bipartisan support – has been sent to the governor and signed into law. The other bills are stalled in conference committee, with chairs seemingly in little hurry to push them through. At Monday’s gathering of the Education conference committee, for instance, legislators watched two films extolling the virtues of literacy. Conference committee chairs haven’t even been provided exact dollar amounts for their fiscal targets.

“Nobody’s doing anything,” said Rep. Ann Lenczewski, DFL-Bloomington, the ranking minority member on the Taxes Committee. “They don’t have a target, meaning Speaker [Kurt] Zellers and Senate Majority Leader [Amy] Koch have not given them a target. So that means the House and Senate don’t even agree. They can’t do anything with money until that happens.”

“We haven’t had a serious discussion about anything in our committee,” echoed Rep. Thomas Huntley, DFL-Duluth, the ranking minority member of the Health and Human Services Finance Committee. “There’s been no real effort to move this stuff along. I’m beginning to wonder if they just want to let it go right to the end before they even have a bill.”

The assumption among most Capitol observers was that Republicans would pass many of their finance bills out of conference committee in a timely manner and force Dayton to act. Most of the budget bills would likely be vetoed, given the fundamental philosophical differences over how to eliminate the state’s unprecedented deficit. Dayton wants to reduce roughly half the shortfall by raising taxes on the state’s wealthiest residents, while Republicans have vowed to hold the line on any tax increases.

But instead Republicans have been calling on Dayton to begin actively negotiating while the bills are still sitting in conference committee. “We need the governor to come to the table,” said Koch, of Buffalo, at a news conference on Friday. “He needs to engage, and we need to have negotiations.”

Dayton has largely rebuffed those calls, insisting that the Legislature needs to reconcile its budget bills and send them to him before the real negotiations can begin, and lambasting Republicans for using questionable math to square the books. He has called on legislators to send all the bills to his desk by this Friday – a request that’s being ignored.

The result is a standoff that’s left even veteran tea leaf readers at the Capitol stymied regarding the path toward a settlement by May 23. “I’m surprised that they’ve spent the last three weeks kind of dithering,” one longtime GOP lobbyist said of the Legislature. “There’s not been much done in the last three weeks. Frankly, I can’t tell you why.”

In recent years May has typically kicked off serious budget deliberations. In 2009, for instance, three finance bills had passed out of conference committee by the close of the first week of May. Two years earlier, seven finance bills had emerged from conference committee by that point. The average conference committee during those two sessions remained open for roughly 15 days. By contrast, most conference committees in this session have already been open for more than a month. Of course, in the two previous budget cycles the power dynamic was reversed, with DFLers controlling the Legislature and a Republican occupying the top post in the executive branch.

GOP legislative leaders insist that they are making progress on their bills. They also reiterate that the caucus remains committed to solving the state’s budget deficit without raising taxes. “Frankly, I think in education we shouldn’t have too difficult a time between the House, Senate and governor,” said Sen. Gen Olson, R-Minnetrista, chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee. “We’re very close on the money.”

The same cannot be said, however, for health and human services, which represents roughly a third of the budget. That’s because both the House and Senate rely on receiving a global waiver from the federal government for spending on the state’s Medicaid program in order to achieve substantial cost savings. The Senate proposal seeks $600 million in such savings, while House proposal envisions $300 million. Dayton has ridiculed the proposals as unrealistic given that the next fiscal year begins on July 1 and that any action by the federal government would likely take months.

Rep. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, chairman of the Health and Human Services Finance Committee, says he expects to receive an exact budget target from the GOP leadership next week. “I know it’s going to be in the ballpark of one of our two bills,” Abeler said, arguing that progress is being made in the conference committee. “We’re about on track with where I thought we might be by now.”

Abeler sees some positive signs about the budget debate, including the fact that Department of Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson sat in on part of Tuesday’s conference committee hearing. In addition, he cites the early expansion of the state’s Medicaid program – which was a top priority for Dayton but is eradicated in both the House and Senate bills – as a possible area where the GOP could compromise. But he still anticipates a protracted standoff.

“The governor has to believe the reality that House Republicans and Senate Republicans will sit here a long time before they’re going to raise revenue,” Abeler said. “No one knows how long that will be, but I think the answer is going to be a long time. Will they go past the end of session? Absolutely. Will they go past June 1? Certainly. Will they go past July 1? Most likely. Will they go past Sept. 1? I bet. If you think your opponent’s going to blink, you don’t want to close the deal.”

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