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Minnesota lawmakers plan to wrap up special session Thursday as hundreds protest

Hundreds gathered in the Minnesota Capitol Wednesday, May 24, 2017, to urge Gov. Mark Dayton to veto bills funding the $46 billion state budget. Don Davis / Forum News Service1 / 6
Protesters from many groups joined a Minnesoa Capitol rally Wednesday, May 24, 2017, to urge Gov. Mark Dayton to veto a Republican-written budget. Groups ranged from teachers to union members to immigrant organizations. Don Davis / Forum News Service2 / 6
Some Democratic Minnesota state representatives join a Wednesday, May 24, 2017, protest of Republican-written budget legislation. Among them were Reps. Peggy Flanagan of St. Louis Park (in light sweater) and Jennifer Schultz of Duluth (in dark jacket) (Don Davis / Forum News Service3 / 6
A tired Minnesota Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, center, huddles with staff members Wednesday, May 24, 2017, as the first day of a special legislative session nears its end. Don Davis / Forum News Service4 / 6
Minnesota state Sens. Bill Ingebrigtsen oif Alexandria, left, and Torrey Westrom of Elbow Lake are seatmates, Republicans and serve adjoining districts, but on Wednesday, May 24, 2017, had different focues on the Senate floor. Don Davis / Forum News Service5 / 6
Minnesota state Reps. Jeanne Poppe of Austin, Paul Marquart of Dilworth and Melissa Hortman of Brooklyn Park talk during one of many breaks in the House Wednesday, May 24, 2017. Don Davis / Forum News Service6 / 6

ST. PAUL—An overtime Minnesota legislative session provided an opening to protest the state budget as legislative leaders worked out plans to finish on Thursday.

Hundreds gathered at the state Capitol Wednesday, May 24, delivering chants like "veto everything" because they do not like spending bills mostly written by Republicans. In many cases, the complaints were that the legislation would not spend enough money.

Protesters came from a wide-ranging coalition including teachers, religious leaders, immigration supporters, local government control advocates and others.

When protesters gathered in front of the House chamber, several Democratic representatives jointed the chants in favor of vetoes.

The state teachers' union was among the key groups involved.

"We cannot accept the long-term harm to the students of Minnesota and their families that will be caused by the bills moving through the chambers and are asking Gov. Mark Dayton to publicly declare them all dead on arrival and reset the process," Education Minnesota President Denise Specht said. "It's time to drop the lights on this circus for a while."

Specht said bills that could land on Dayton's desk would lower the quality of teaching, for instance. That is a reference to a provision that would allow non-teachers an easier entry into teaching.

The protest came during a slow day in the House and Senate, which featured far more waiting than work, at least in public. Closed-door meetings were common.

Legislators who have had little sleep in recent days missed their second deadline in two days Wednesday morning, leaving much of the state's $46 billion, two-year budget undone. But the House and Senate return at noon Thursday, with House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, saying the goal is to finish passing the state budget before they go home for the year.

Daudt said that legislative leaders and Dayton met from time to time Wednesday, but more work remains before they can wrap up the budget.

It took 22 hours to put together the health and human services funding bill, even after Dayton and leaders agreed to its provisions. HHS is the largest funding legislation, both in money and pages.

During the regular legislative session, which ended at midnight Monday, lawmakers passed legislation funding agriculture, environment, higher education, economic development and public safety. But more than two-thirds of the budget was left undone.

On Wednesday, the House approved bills for taxes, education and transportation, with senators doing the same with taxes. Senators also debated education, but did not finish it.

HHS funding, as well as money for a variety of state programs, remained not done. Also not reaching votes was a public works funding bill.

But lawmakers did pass some bills Wednesday.

"This is the largest, most robust transportation bill in the history of the state," Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, said before fellow House members approved his measure.

The legislation uses money that could go to other programs, a method Democrats oppose. It does not raise the gasoline tax or vehicle registration fees.

The bill set aside $16 million for cities smaller than 5,000, with other money destined to larger cities and counties, as well as $102 million for state highways. It also provides $25 million for work on nearly 100 state bridges.

The education bill passed by the House and on Wednesday night awaiting a Senate vote makes up 40 percent of the state's spending. It would give public schools $483 million in new funding over the next two years, with much of it going toward a 2 percent a year increase in the per-pupil funding formula school districts use for day-to-day operations.

There's also $50 million in new spending for Gov. Mark Dayton's key priority of expanding public preschool.

A $650 million package of tax cuts that both chambers approved is headlined by a break for seniors receiving Social Security income. The provision will cost an estimated $117 million over the next two years.

There are several tax breaks for businesses, including a $95 million exemption for commercial property and a $19 million research and development credit. The measure will freeze cigarette taxes at current rates.

People with student debt can get tax credits up to $500, at a total cost to the state of $54 million. A bump to the tax credit for working families will cost the state $36 million, while an increase in the estate tax exemption from $1.8 million this year to $3 million for people who die in 2020 will cost $34 million. Farmers will get a tax credit to offset the cost of school tax levies.

In an interview, House Minority Leader Melissa Hortman, D-Brooklyn Park, brought up a factor that could delay the Legislature's adjournment: Mistakes and surprise provisions are being found in bills already passed. Either could cause Dayton vetoes.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.