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Danielle Nordine and Don Davis, State Capitol Bureau, Published April 15 2012

Some Minnesota lawmakers ready to adjourn; some want more time

ST. PAUL – Every issue in front of the Minnesota Legislature is optional as it prepares to adjourn in a few days, a couple of weeks or on its mandatory May 21 last day.

As lawmakers return from a 10-day Easter-Passover recess Monday, there is nothing they absolutely have to do in their remaining time this year, unlike a year ago.

“This is not like last year when we had to agree on hard numbers ...” Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton said about his 2011 dealings with the Republican-controlled Legislature. “There is nothing we have to have in bills.”

There is a sense the legislative end is near.

“Things are starting to funnel,” House Speaker Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, said, indicating that many bills still with a chance are headed to House-Senate negotiations.

Zellers said he considers April 30 the deadline for work this year, although the state constitution gives lawmakers until May 21.

“We don’t need to dillydally around,” he said.

Dayton’s three major issues – approving a new Vikings stadium, funding public works projects and renovating the state Capitol building – bring with them divisions and face an uncertain future. But issues out of the spotlight have a better chance, such as increasing hunting and fishing license fees, funding the fight against Asian carp and other invasive species, and changing how the state makes rules so businesses have more certainty when dealing with state government.

In an interview, Zellers admitted that Dayton’s opposition means some Republican projects will not survive. One is probably the GOP’s priority to cut and eventually eliminate the statewide business property tax. Zellers said it would be “a huge lift” given Dayton’s opposition, but a smaller business tax cut remains possible.

Of 42 bills lawmakers have passed, the major one is a proposed constitutional amendment to require voters to show photographic identifications before casting ballots. It goes directly to voters on Nov. 6.

“I’d say that was the marquee accomplishment this year,” Sen. Dave Thompson, R-Lakeville, said, sounding like the legislative session already is over.

Rep. Morrie Lanning, R-Moorhead, said Republicans and the governor are working together on remaining issues such as the stadium and tax bills.

“You want to have bills the governor will sign,” Lanning said. “You can pass a bill to make a political statement, but if in the end it’s not signed it’s a lot of effort for no outcome.”

Many lawmakers join Zellers in predicting an end of April adjournment, but others say the focus should be on finishing the remaining work instead of a deadline.

“Everybody’s anxious to be done, but you don’t want to go home without doing the work,” Lanning said.

A resolution to the stadium issue and a public works bill, funded by the state selling bonds, top most legislators’ still-to-do lists.

“The No. 1 priority of a short session year is a bonding bill,” Democratic Sen. Roger Reinert of Duluth said. “That’s the only reason we’re supposed to be here.”

Many Republicans agree. The problem comes in trying to blend three very different proposals from the Legislature and Dayton.

“We’ve got House and Senate bills that are nothing like each other,” Reinert said. “I’m fairly convinced there won’t be (a resolution), unfortunately.”

The House plan would spend $280 million, the Senate $500 million and Dayton $775 million.

“The governor’s is too big,” retiring Rep. Mark Murdock, R-Ottertail, said. “Minnesota can’t afford that.”

A plan for a new Vikings stadium is the “elephant in the room” during the rest of the session, Reinert said.

“It’s gone on long enough,” said Lanning, the stadium bill’s chief House author. “We need to get this resolved. It deserves an up or down vote.”

Zellers has been a key to the stadium issue and in the interview said feedback he receives from representatives is that it has a decent chance to pass the House, given the fact that it passed two committees a week before the recess.

Many stadium-related questions have been answered, he added, especially dealing with funding issues.

Still, Zellers said, for him a stadium falls far below issues such as taxes and flood control and he will not force a vote by the full House.

One of the issues that apparently will not pass this year is a mostly Democratic attempt to replace the $370 million last year’s budget agreement cut from property tax credits. Democrats say that cut forced local governments to raise their local taxes by that much.

“Now our state has the highest property tax level in our 154-year history,” Rep. Kent Eken, DFL-Twin Valley, said. “Over the last 10 years property taxes for homeowners increased by 92 percent and property taxes for farmers have increased 150 percent.”

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Danielle Nordine and Don Davis report for Forum Communications Co.