Minnesota lawmakers take extraordinary measures in special session to advance tardy budget

Minnesota's path to a new state budget took another abrupt turn Friday when Democratic senators reworked a funding bill for agricultural and environmental programs instead of passing a plan negotiated between Gov. Mark Dayton and House Republicans.

The move threw into doubt the ability of lawmakers to complete a special session within their one-day goal and left open the possibility some government services could be interrupted come July. Failure to pass a budget by the end of June would cause state parks to close and farm programs to get shut off.

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It was part of a revolt by environmentally minded Democrats, who said the deal cut earlier weakened protections by eliminating a pollution control oversight board and altering other regulations. Those senators helped sink the initial bill earlier in the day and forced its reopening Friday evening, where they restored the citizen board at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and stripped a potential exemption for copper and nickel mines from solid waste regulations.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk said he called Dayton, asking for approval to go against an agreement that all budget bills would be passed as-is in a special session.

"He wished us the best of luck," Bakk said.

Republicans said their trust was violated.

"I thought we'd come here to honor a deal," said Sen. Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake, adding, "Once this unravels members, there is probably more that will."

The bill, which passed 40-26, heads to the Republican-controlled House, where its fate is now clouded.

"We had an agreed-upon bill," said key House Republican Rep. Denny McNamara. "Those are major provisions in the bill. We don't have the votes to pass that."

Legislators are already 25 days late in finishing their work. They have until June 30 to finalize a two-year, $42 billion budget and avoid a partial government shutdown that would idle up to 9,400 employees and disrupt services. With the passage of two other bills earlier, the impact list was shrinking.

A public school budget, a centerpiece of the special session that boosts school spending by $525 million, overwhelmingly passed both the House and Senate. Republican Rep. Jenifer Loon said the bulk of that money would go toward the state's per-pupil funding formula, providing for 2 percent increases in each of the next two years. After vetoing an original bill that put up less money, Dayton initially held out for a prized preschool initiative but relented with the assurance of more money.

Many House Democrats decried the lack of a statewide preschool program but credited the governor for securing a larger windfall for public schools on a second try.

"Thank God for Gov. Dayton ... for pulling Republicans, kicking and screaming, to a budget that is actually going to do something for our schools," House Minority Leader Paul Thissen said.

The bill also allows school districts to resume classes this year before Labor Day, which falls on a late date this year.

The overtime session was sparked by Dayton's veto of three budget bills, primarily the education bill that he said didn't do enough to invest in schools.

On the first try, the environment bill came one vote short of passing. Just 12 of 39 Senate Democrats voted for the bill, joining with 21 Republicans to fall one vote short of the 34-vote threshold.

As the Senate took up the environment bill, Sen. David Tomassoni, an Iron Range Democrat, urged colleagues to pass it. He stressed the bill's aid for poultry farmers hit hard by bird flu and reminded other senators of state workers who could be laid off if the budget isn't resolved. Tomassoni also said opponents of the bill were inflating the expected effects of regulatory changes.

Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, disagreed, quoted a newspaper story that called the "environmental vandalism" and said lawmakers should pull the bill back for a makeover.

"We do not need to take our environment backwards in order to approve a state budget," Marty argued.