WDAY: The News Leader

Published May 19, 2013, 09:39 AM

Minnesota lawmakers take budget debate down to wire

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — The final pieces of Minnesota's next two-year budget were falling into place Sunday amid a time crunch for lawmakers to get it all approved.

By: BRIAN BAKST,Associated Press PATRICK CONDON,Associated Press, Associated Press

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — The final pieces of Minnesota's next two-year budget were falling into place Sunday amid a time crunch for lawmakers to get it all approved.

The state House worked into the wee hours to pass major elements, including a $15.7 billion plan for public education. It prevailed on a 78-56 vote.

The Senate planned to weigh in on that bill later Sunday, as well as the legislation that would help pay for it — a package containing $2 billion in tax increases on smokers, corporations and people with six-figure incomes.

Democratic majorities are racing to beat Monday's midnight deadline for wrapping the session. Just before Saturday became Sunday, Senate majority leader and House speaker moved in tandem from room to room to watch over committees crafting the bills to raise taxes, fund core agencies of government and outdoors and arts programs.

Other issues elbowed their way into the picture.

Around 2 a.m., the House dove into what promised to be a lengthy debate over a bill giving unions power to organize certain private daycares and home health care attendants for the elderly and disabled. Republicans prepared more than 100 amendments to fight a bill they argued was driven by a connected political interest. Labor unions gave big to Democrats in the last election, but party leaders insisted the bill was about giving workers a louder collective voice if they decided to unionize through an election.

"This bill doesn't tell daycare providers how to raise their kids," said Rep. Michael Nelson, DFL-Brooklyn Park. "It's about giving people a voice in their job. It's about giving people a choice in their workplace."

Republicans, including Rep. Mary Franson of Alexandria, raised fears of "intimidation and harassment" during the organizing drive.

Democrats said they intended to revert to budget bills when they became ready.

Details of a tax plan were finalized late Saturday, but it wasn't expected to be in voting shape until Sunday. The bill raises state tax rates for the first time in years, but in a targeted way. Smokers would pay $1.60 more per pack of cigarettes and for cigars. The top two percent of wage earners would pay two percentage points more on a slice of their income once it reaches $250,000 for couples and $150,000 for singles. Corporations would get fewer tax write-offs. And some businesses would pay sales tax on transactions they didn't have to before.

But the sprawling bill also contained hope of property tax breaks. Cities and counties won't have to pay sales taxes on purchases for the first time in decades. In exchange for more state money, cities and counties would be required to tamp down property taxes. A one-year levy limit would be imposed. Except in rare cases, new local levies will be held to three percent or less. Many cities could have to freeze their tax rates.

A bill providing money to operate several state agencies was the last to come together. Heading into negotiations, the Senate was pushing for raises for agency managers and elected officials, with the governor being permitted to adjust commissioners' salaries.

Top lawmakers were still searching for a way to assemble a slimmed-down construction projects bill that would include renovation funding for the state Capitol. On Friday, the House defeated an $800 million construction projects bill. Republicans argued it was too large.

A pared-back bill could be limited to the $109 million for the Capitol makeover, some disaster recovery assistance, matching money for a new Minneapolis Veterans home building and other projects deemed critical.

Republican buy-in is necessary because the bill requires three-fifths majorities to pass, beyond what Democratic House and Senate majorities can muster alone.

Another question mark was a bill to boost the minimum wage. House Democrats were pressing to lift the floor wage to $9.50 by 2015, but the Senate passed legislation topping out at $7.75.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said he was hopeful the chambers could find middle ground, but indicated his members would only move so far.

"I don't see a path in the Senate to get above $8 per hour," Bakk said.