Soon crunch time at the Capitol

MARSHALL – Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick.

That’s the sound of the clock ticking down until the mandated adjournment of the 2013 legislative session. And that clock isn’t slowing down.

Lawmakers have 16 days left in the 2013 session, and there are still a number of high-profile items floating around the Capitol, most notably, a tax bill and a budget that reflects a deficit of $627 million.

“There are a lot of bills yet to be heard,” said District 16A Rep. Chris Swedzinski, R-Ghent. “There have been about 1,700 bills heard, and there are still a lot waiting out in the wings.”

Of course, no one has hit the panic button yet. Taking things down to the wire is commonplace in St. Paul, meaning long hours for legislators.

“We’re spending every single day on the House floor now,” Swedzinski said. “We’ll gavel in at 10, deal with a couple bills, break, then come back and go until 5, 6, 10 o’clock at night depending on the day. There are three weeks left, and those days are gonna be long. Some of it is hurry up and wait while things get hammered out.”

Considering some of the bills still out there, lawmakers might need a bigger hammer.

The tax bill, for instance, has garnered plenty of attention and not just because of the wide range of proposed taxes it includes.

Although the DFL is in charge of both the House and Senate, the chambers’ two bills carry some stark differences.

The House tax bill would raise state taxes by $2.6 billion, the Senate’s $1.8 billion. The House version includes a bump in the state’s alcohol tax, the Senate’s does not, and Gov. Mark Dayton hasn’t confirmed which way he will go on that one.

The House bill would impose a temporary 4 percent surcharge on those making more than $500,000 a year (it would end once the state’s $854 million school IOU is paid off). Under the Senate’s plan, the state’s top tax rate would rise from 7.85 percent to 9.4 percent on taxable income of more than $140,960 for couples and $79,730 for individuals. The sales tax rate would be lowered to 6 percent but would include services and items now tax-exempt, including clothing.

“Democrats are negotiating against themselves right now,” Swedzinski said. “I’ve talked to business owners across the state, and they’re definitely concerned about what the last couple of weeks here will produce.”

“Theoretically, until they have a tax bill come out of conference committee, we don’t know how much we will spend,” said District 16 Sen. Gary Dahms, R-Redwood Falls. “Until we know that, we can’t have a budget bill. I haven’t heard Dayton suggest he’s ready to deal with any bills, which tells me he thinks we need to get together and come up with a bill we can all agree with.”

Dahms said even though Democrats control all three branches of government in Minnesota, they’re not on the same page on many issues. Dahms knows DFL House and Senate leadership meet several times a day but isn’t certain on what all has been accomplished at those meetings.

“Certainly, you pull another week out of here, then it’s gonna be crunch time,” he said. “We’ve got the energy bill, we’ve got the transportation bill to be heard on the floor yet. The conference committees have to come together on those.”

Other issues being conferenced include Health and Human Services and environment, jobs and ag, along with the tax bill. Dahms said there are also a number of stand-alone bills to consider. But it’s that tax bill that has drawn the most attention and concern.

“Between the Senate, the House and the governor, there’s quite a difference,” he said. “That’s gonna be the toughest one for them to come together on. You really have to get an agreement on the tax bill before you can finalize the budget bill. I don’t believe anyone wants to take a chance on submitting a bill the governor might veto.”

Dahms said the House and Senate leaders are “moving fast and furious” to get the tax bill ironed out. The question, he said, is how many days will be left in the session once that bill gets resolved.

With all that’s still on the table, Swedzinski said the prospects of a bonding bill getting resolved dwindle with each passing day.

“I kind of doubt there will be one,” he said, “but a lot can change. It’s a very fluid situation right now. It seems the Senate is not really interested in doing anything, and the House says one thing and the governor says another.”