Conference Committee Kicks Off.
The initial meeting of the House/Senate supplemental budget conference committee began its proceedings today with a review of the various appropriations contained in each bill. As I've stated before, this bill is huge in volume and scope, covering all of the functions to state government and also dealing with the policy for all of these areas in addition to funding. Initially, the House passed a series of appropriations bills while the Senate lumped all of the appropriations into one bill, but the House rules allow the folding of bills that have passed the full House into discussion at the conference committee level. To the lay person, this is quite confusing (as it is for many lobbyists) and it begs the question as to how Civics should be taught. Needless to say, the "how a bill becomes a law" page in the textbook needs some significant revision.
The conference committee will continue to meet, with a late afternoon meeting scheduled for tomorrow (Wednesday) to discuss some of the significant language differences that exist between the House and Senate bills. It will be interesting to see how the policy questions are handled. The Governor was explicit in his request that funding and policy be handled in separate bills, which could mean one big veto awaits the supplemental budget bill if it contains policy language the Governor does not like. How that plays out in the next twelve days will be interesting to watch (if you enjoy watching that sort of thing).
Pension Bill Finally Moving in the House. After passing the Senate on a unanimous vote of 66-0 over a month ago, the House is moving on the pension bill (SF 2620), with the bill scheduled for a hearing in the House State Government Finance Committee on Friday morning. It will be interesting to see if the House amends the bill at all. The impediment to getting the bill passed last session revolved around the decision to attach a couple of other policy measures to the bill that the Governor could not support, leading in turn to a veto. This version of the pension bill has been negotiated very carefully, so any amendments will probably be looked at with a jaundiced eye. I don't think anyone wants to see this become a bargaining chip as the session winds down given the fact that the cost of remedying the shortages in the pension funds goes up if this issue remains unresolved another year.
Constitutional Amendment on Transportation Continues to Move in the House. Even with Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka saying he is short votes to pass the proposed constitutional amendment that would reserve the proceeds from the sales tax on auto repairs and replacement parts for use in transportation projects, the House continues to marshal the bill through the various committees necessary to get the bill to the floor. The battle lines on the bill are pretty clearly drawn. If you work in the construction trades, you are for the constitutional amendment. If your interest depends on money from the state general fund, you are against it. While it's not a huge amount of money when viewed in the context of the entire budget, it is enough that if the reserve language was in effect for this year, the $329 million budget forecast surplus we are currently enjoying would be totally absorbed.
Another matter that isn't being discussed very extensively is whether the Minnesota Constitution is the appropriate vehicle (seeing we are talking about auto repairs) to enact a relatively narrow policy initiative. The Legislature and Governor could agree to do this right now (which would admittedly be difficult given the divergent views of the Legislature and the Dayton Administration on this issue) and perhaps at some point in the future they will do so. But to put language like this in the Constitution would limit the ability of the Legislature to reverse course in the midst of an economic downturn if more flexibility is needed. Further, if this language were to go into the Constitution, I can pretty much guarantee there will be a line around the block from interests seeking to reserve revenue for one reason or another and make that happen through the Constitution. This will be an issue to watch as the session winds down.