Dilworth DFLer weighs in on home stretch of 2017 legislative session

    Longtime State Rep. Paul Marquart, a DFLer from Dilworth, says he’s hopeful almost every spring as the Minnesota Legislature nears crunch time and still has a lot of important legislation to hammer out. That’s the case again this year, as conference committees in the Republican-controlled House and Senate arrive at their compromised priorities in preparation for seeing how they line up with Gov. Mark Dayton, a Democrat.

    “I’m always the naive optimist that we’ll get things done,” he told the Times in a phone interview. “But I’ve been down here 17 years, this is my ninth budget cycle, and we always seem to go the same route. Even though folks are always talking about a better approach and getting things done earlier, we always come down to the very end, unfortunately.”

    Sometimes, the final hours, minutes and even seconds of the session before it’s legally required to adjourn devolve into nothing less than a circus atmosphere. It’s at those times, Marquart said, that legislators face perhaps their most difficult challenge because they’re being asked to vote on legislation that’s been assembled in a rushed frenzy, and it’s hard to know everything you’re voting on.

    “You know your priorities, but you’re constantly scrambling and constantly trying to keep track of them,” he explained. “When it comes down to a final, global agreement, are your priorities in there? It’s a stressful, anxious time, making sure your priorities get into these bills.”

    Right now, the conference committees are putting forth their priorities, and Dayton has told them to come up with their joint targets in advance of negotiations commencing.

    Here’s a rundown of some primary legislative hot-button issues as this year’s session moves toward its required adjournment in a little less than two weeks:

Bonding bill

    No bonding bill was approved in 2016, so several projects across the state and in Crookston and Polk County remain in limbo. Dayton and the Senate have released their bonding proposals, but the House has not, which Marquart said is disappointing. “There’s been a lot of bipartisan work done on this, and yet there’s no bonding bill from the House,” he said. “Here we are, playing games again.”

    Marquart said rural Minnesota pays the biggest price when bonding bills are left to languish.

    “Basically what happens is rural Minnesota communities and projects are used as pawns in the chess match of negotiations,” he said.

Tax bill, surplus

    As legislators factor the $1.5 billion surplus into the size, scope and breakdown of their tax bill, Marquart said he needs to see a better balance between tax cuts and spending before he looks favorably upon a bill.

    While he likes the ag property tax credit in the bill that eases the burden for school district building projects, Marquart said his concerns involve the bigger picture, and right-sizing the legislature’s approach to the surplus and how it will be broken down between tax relief and spending.

    “Like, right now, it’s five bucks in tax cuts for every one dollar on education; I would think people recognize that’s not a good thing,” Marquart said.

    An approach that divides the surplus into even thirds would be preferable, he explained, with one third for tax cuts, one third for K-12 education spending (which would provide a 2 percent funding formula increase over each year of the budget biennium), and the rest for investments in things like Health and Human Services, transportation and broadband.

    “That would be a good balance and would match our priorities,” Marquart said.

Transportation

    Marquart said it was “huge” when Dayton announced last week he could potentially support a transportation funding package that doesn’t include an increase in the gasoline tax. “The realization right now is that the Republicans won’t accept one penny of a gas tax (increase), but the governor knows how important it is to get some long-term (transportation) funding. He’s being a true statesman here, saying ‘I’m going to do something I don’t like in order to get something important done.’ That’s compromise, and I wish it would occur more down here.”

    Marquart added, however, that it’s difficult to envision a long-term, comprehensive transportation funding solution without some level of dedicated funding. “Still, what the governor did was a major breakthrough,” he stressed.    

Special session?

    Marquart said he thinks the legislature and governor will get their work done without needing a special session, or without flirting with the notion of a state government shutdown. Marquart said it’s up to Dayton to continue setting the tone, and striking a balance between standing firm and compromising.

    “He can be tough when he needs to be, but he’s pragmatic in the end and wants to see things get done that benefit the state,” Marquart said. “He’ll compromise on some things, but stay firm on some things. It’s about having your principles and staying true to them, but being flexible and willing to listen.”