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Special session to address Minnesota public works projects remains possible

Minnesota House Speaker Kurt Daudt tells reporters on Friday, Aug. 12, 2016, that Twin Cities transit funding remains a roadblock to a special legislative session. Looking on are Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, center, and Gov. Mark Dayton. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)1 / 2
Minnesota leaders walk outside to talk to reporters Friday, Aug. 12, 2016, after they failed to reach a deal to call a special legislative session. From left are House Speaker Kurt Daudt, Gov. Mark Dayton and Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)2 / 2

ST. PAUL—Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton declared a special legislative session dead just more than a month ago, but on Thursday, Sept. 22, legislative and executive branch staff members gather to discuss bringing legislators back this fall.

The governor raised the possibility of resurrecting special session talks during a late-August State Fair interview and talked to House Speaker Kurt Daudt about it over breakfast earlier this month.

At stake are hundreds of millions of dollars in public works projects, including road work, and tax breaks for many Minnesotans.

There are signs of some change since talks broke off last month, such as finding local funding for a controversial Twin Cities rail line, but differences are easy to find, too.

Dayton, for instance, complained to reporters that it took Daudt, R-Crown, two weeks from the time the two had breakfast to schedule a staff meeting.

"The clock is ticking," the Democratic governor said, adding that a special session just before the Nov. 8 election "is not well advised." The Legislature is due back for its regular session on Jan. 3, and it already is too late for construction to begin this year if a special session approves public works spending.

Daudt has said since the regular session adjourned in May that he wants a special session to deal with taxes and public works.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, recently told the Duluth News Tribune Editorial Board that he and Daudt have an agreement on transportation funding, the issue that sunk about $1 billion in construction spending as the 2016 regular session ended in May.

House Republicans insisted that about $300 million in transportation funding be earmarked to specific projects. The projects, Dayton said, were selected based on this year's GOP election needs instead of following a list of the most-needed work as determined by his Minnesota Department of Transportation.

Bakk said that Daudt has agreed to the senator's proposal to keep the transportation funding plan as is, except MnDOT can opt not to proceed with any project it does not feel is ready. Daudt could not be reached to confirm that he agrees with Bakk.

The governor and legislative leaders appear to agree that a one-word change in the vetoed tax bill would allow it to pass and be signed, giving tax breaks to a variety of Minnesotans, from farmers to students, as well as increasing state aid to local governments. The single word mistake would have cost the state millions of dollars.

One of the tax cuts Bakk said is very important would relieve property tax burdens farm land owners pay toward building new schools. The bill would have the state pick up 40 percent of school construction assessments placed on farm ground.

The tax bill could be important to the Legislature returning to work, Bakk said. "I do think it keeps the heat on for a special session."

Bakk said House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, D-Minneapolis, is key to getting a public works bill passed in a special session. The House Republican majority can pass most bills without Democratic support, but a measure to borrow money for public works projects requires more votes than Republicans have, so it needs Democratic support.

Thissen said in an interview that he is "not particularly optimistic" that a special session is possible, although he would like one.

If Democrats take control of the House in the Nov. 8 elections, Thissen promised to pass a public works bill within the first 30 days of session.

One problem Thissen said he sees in calling a special session is that Daudt has not agreed to include in a public works bill money to improve the state security hospital in St. Peter, "where people are getting beat up on a regular basis." The Dayton administration proposes money to remodel the hospital, making it safer for workers and patients.

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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