The rough outline of a bipartisan bargain that would provide a positive finish to the 2012 legislative session has been obvious for weeks. It would give DFL Gov. Mark Dayton the substantial bonding bill he seeks in exchange for his signature on business tax relief measures the Republican-controlled Legislature wants. That deal, plus authorization for a new Minnesota Vikings stadium, would represent significant accomplishment.
But at Minnesota's chronically fractious statehouse in a highly uncertain election year, what's obvious can also be frustratingly elusive. That reality was driven home last week by two developments, one painfully public, one less visible.
On Thursday, the House's attempt to win first-round approval of a bill authorizing $221 million in bonding for renovation of the State Capitol fell one vote short of the requisite 81 needed for approval. DFLers provided just 11 votes -- enough to achieve 81 votes if every Republican present that day had voted for the bill as well. One GOP defector -- lame-duck Rep. Mark Buesgens of Shakopee -- would not play along, and the bill faltered.
Last week's other stumble occurred in private talks between GOP leaders and Dayton administration officials. What precisely was said isn't known. But initial optimism soon gave way to discouragement. "We're way, way far apart," one participant reported.
To their credit, they haven't stopped trying -- though the latest GOP move seems to go in the wrong direction. On Friday, the House Ways and Means Committee approved a new bonding bill that includes the Capitol, but in other respects is even smaller than the House's first iteration. The new version's non-Capitol projects total $213 million, $67 million less than the House Capital Investment Committee initially approved.
That approach may attract Republican votes. But DFLers say the new bill is woefully inadequate -- and they are right. One example: In response to the request from the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities for $225 million, mostly for more science and math education space, the new House bill offers a measly $30 million for roof and boiler repairs. Also missing are funding for Southwest Corridor light-rail transit, convention centers in Rochester, Mankato and St. Cloud, and any funding for corrections, human-services and public-safety facilities.
House bonding chair Larry Howes said Monday that some of the missing projects could reappear in a conference committee -- but first, his bill has to get there. His plea is for DFLers to swallow hard for a bill they consider irresponsibly skimpy to avoid finishing the session with no bonding bill at all. That's a lot to ask -- but it's what statecraft requires and what Minnesotans expect when government is divided.
The other apparent obstacle to a session-ending deal is GOP eagerness to cut taxes in a way that raids the state's reserve fund and/or worsens projected deficits in 2014-15 and beyond. To his credit, Dayton has staked out a position that in an earlier day would have been called conservative. He won't accept such budget-busters. He's also opposed to paying for business tax breaks by cutting property tax credits for low-income renters, as the House bill would do.
Dayton's limits need not be an excuse for failing to deliver modest tax relief for businesses this year. The GOP has other options for paying for business tax relief. Closing a notorious tax loophole for corporations with foreign operations would cover a good-sized property tax break. Compelling more online retailers to collect sales taxes already owed, rather than putting that onus on consumers, would allow for a nice bump in the angel investment tax credit, which is proving its worth after only two years in law.
Those are but two examples of what's possible, provided GOP legislators are willing to shake off their reluctance to compromise with the DFL governor. Like it or not, Republican legislators face limited choices. They can either strike a deal with Dayton, or walk away and face the accusation this fall that they turned in a "do-nothing" performance. Republican partisans may consider those choices equally distasteful.
For other Minnesotans, we'd bet, it's an easy choice: Do the deal.