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Capitol Chatter: Minnesota legislative session comes down to transportation funding

ST. PAUL - Minnesota House Republicans crammed into a news conference to lobby Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton to drop his desire to raise the state gasoline tax.The Friday event emphasized the GOP stance against more taxes, something Dayton knows ve...

ST. PAUL – Minnesota House Republicans crammed into a news conference to lobby Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton to drop his desire to raise the state gasoline tax.

The Friday event emphasized the GOP stance against more taxes, something Dayton knows very well. But the real message was that Republicans put an exclamation point on their long-stated feeling that increasing transportation funding is the voters' No. 1 issue.

Pretty much everyone in power agrees that at least $600 million a year in new money must be injected into the transportation system for a decade to bring it up to minimum standards. The disagreement is about how to pay for it.

How to fund transportation needs is key to finishing the legislative session somewhat smoothly.

House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, told Forum News Service on Friday that once the governor and legislative leaders agree on how much money will go to transportation, other issues soon will be resolved. However, some transportation spending details must be decided before other funding issues can be decided.

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For example, there is a widespread agreement that some money should come from public works funding, and the so-called bonding bill cannot wrap up until transportation funding is decided.

Also, some transportation money likely will come from other programs, so work on other budget bills cannot move forward until negotiators know how much they have to spend on those other programs.

And since Republicans and many Democrats want to use some of the state budget surplus for tax cuts, indecision about transportation spending delays finalizing any tax cut plan.

Dayton promised to deliver his version of a transportation compromise on Monday, but Daudt and other Republicans went in front of reporters to urge the Democratic governor not to keep a gas tax increase in the plan.

"We don't have a vote for a gas tax..." Daudt said, looking over fellow GOP representatives. "We do stand together."

Not much later, Republican House members began sending out news releases stating their opposition to a higher tax.

"Minnesotans have made it very clear that they want transportation improvements but do not want to pay higher gasoline taxes, and House Republicans fully support their position," Rep. Dave Hancock, R-Bemidji, said. "I'm glad the governor is engaged in finding a long-term road and bridge funding solution, but he has to accept that any increase to the gas tax will not gain approval in the Minnesota House, and he needs to act accordingly."

Republicans expressed a bit of willingness to include some transit money in the bill, but Majority Leader Joyce Peppin of Rogers hinted it may not be much because most people travel via private vehicles. "The transit portion is a very, very small percentage."

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Bottom line? Monday's transportation talks could lay out the road to the final week of the 2016 legislative session.

Session update

It is hard to keep up with Minnesota legislative work, so here is a brief summary with about a week left in the 2016 session:

• Legislative leaders and the governor will try to agree on transportation funding Monday.

• House and Senate negotiators continue to discuss how to tweak a $42 billion, two-year budget passed last year.

• Senators defeated a bill borrowing $1.5 billion for public works projects and the House has yet to announce its public works plans, but it is expected to seek $600 million to $1 billion.

• Hundreds of non-budget bills are passing during often-lengthy House and Senate sessions.

inContact to pay phone fine

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A telephone company serving rural Minnesota faces a $100,000 fine for not completing calls.

The Federal Communications fine against inContact comes after U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and others introduced legislation to require federal rules establishing minimum call quality standards.

"Chronic phone call completion problems across rural America cause headaches for families trying to stay connected, hurt small businesses trying to reach customers, and endanger citizens trying to make urgent phone calls," Klobuchar said. "This action from the Federal Communications Commission is a welcome step forward but more needs to be done to address rural call completion issues."

No-wait weddings?

Those who cannot wait to get hitched may not need to.

Minnesota long has required a five-day wait between getting a marriage license and getting married. But the House voted 115-15 to allow immediate weddings; senators are expected to take up its version of the bill before adjourning for the year.

Quote of the week

State Sen. Dave Thompson, R-Lakeville: "I sort of subscribe to the theory that gambling is a tax on people who are bad at math."

Davis covers Minnesota government and politics for Forum News Service. Read his blog at capitolchat.areavoices.com/ and follow him on Twitter at @CapitolChatter.

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