The Free Press, Mankato, MN

May 15, 2014

Pace quickens as adjournment fever hits Legislature

The Associated Press
The Mankato Free Press

---- — ST. PAUL — Minnesota lawmakers plowed into the night Thursday as they sought to finalize deals on $1 billion in construction authorization, a budget bill and tax cuts.

They were up against a Sunday deadline to pass all remaining bills, though the quickening pace of deal-making suggested an earlier election-year exit was possible. Legislators reached deals on legislation to legalize medical marijuana, moved to curb the lottery’s expansion into online gambling and pushed first-ever electronic cigarette restrictions to Gov. Mark Dayton’s desk.

“If you think these are harmless or the addiction to nicotine is harmless, think again,” said Democratic Rep. Laurie Halverson of Eagan before the 93-35 vote on a bill that prohibits sales of e-cigarettes to minors and bans their use in government buildings, on school grounds and at day cares. It was short of the full indoor ban some backers, especially Sen. Kathy Sheran of Mankato, wanted.

Republican Rep. Steve Drazkowski of Mazeppa called it a “government gone wild” response to an issue for which the science hasn’t fully determined the health impact of chemical vapors the e-cigarettes emit.

Many of the big bills were in a holding pattern as legislative leadership negotiated over a construction project that Dayton and many lawmakers deemed critical.

The $846 million plan requires a three-fifths majority to pass, so Republican votes were essential in the Democratic-led Legislature.

As it stood Thursday afternoon, the bill includes several Mankato-area projects, including $14.5 million for Mankato’s civic center, making its seventh serious attempt at funding. The bill also fully funds two St. Peter projects: $56.3 million for the Minnesota Security Hospital and $7.41 million for the Minnesota Sex Offender Program.

However, it leaves out the $7.47 million South Central College renovations and maintenance work, though it does include $25.8 million for a clinical sciences building at Minnesota State University. The list of higher education projects hews closely to the state’s internal rankings, which placed SCC’s project well below MSU’s.

It also includes a slate of smaller Mankato-area projects, including $2.4 million for the Rapidan Dam and $400,000 to study the creation of the Minnesota River Trail between St. Peter and Mankato.

It heavily emphasizes higher-education campus improvements, provides the final $126 million installment for the Capitol renovation, allocates $100 million for affordable housing, gives money to outfit the new state park on Lake Vermilion and helps cities that are upgrading civic centers.

A separate construction plan using $200 million in surplus funds was moving alongside the construction borrowing bill — both in flux as Democrats and Republicans stretched for a deal to assure passage.

Deliberations around the $60 million-plus Lewis and Clark water pipeline project for southwestern Minnesota played out on multiple fronts. Tax bill writers crafted a measure that gives counties and towns in the area new taxing authority to help cover local construction costs, and the proposal is also in line for state construction dollars.

Leading lawmakers say the project is too costly for a sparsely populated area to afford on its own, but the state doesn’t intend to foot the whole bill. The final deal called for 15 percent to come from local taxes and 85 percent from the state, delivered over many years.

“They’re going to have to have some skin in the game,” Sen. Rod Skoe, DFL-Clearbrook, said of towns affected by the project.

Rep. Ann Lenczewski, DFL-Bloomington, compared it to the Mayo Destination Medical Center development deal struck last year that required Rochester and Olmsted County to come up with matching money to access state dollars.

“We wouldn’t want to overburden them and ask them to do more than they can do,” she said, adding that there was broad consensus over the goal. “This is fundamental core infrastructure.”

Meanwhile, a budget committee was finishing work on doling out hundreds of millions of dollars from the state’s $1.2 billion surplus, agreeing to set up a $20 million fund to further broadband Internet availability in rural Minnesota, supplement early childhood scholarship programs and give a $25 per-pupil increase on the school funding formula.

The tax-cut bill included relief for businesses in the way they turn over sales tax dollars and property tax assistance to homeowners, renters and farmers. It was expected to pass with little opposition.