- Associated Press - Friday, May 16, 2014

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) - Finishing their work with time to spare, Minnesota lawmakers took stock Friday of accomplishments and potential campaign liabilities in a year marked by Democratic drives to boost the minimum wage and target school bullying as well as bipartisan efforts to legalize medical marijuana, fix public infrastructure and deliver tax cuts using surplus money.

The campaign messaging has begun well ahead of a fall election when voters will pick a governor and decide the House makeup.

House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, said voters should view the last two years as among the most productive in memory.

“At the end of the day, it was focusing on delivering on some pretty big things for middle-class Minnesota families,” he said, citing the minimum wage bump to $9.50 by 2016, statewide availability of all-day kindergarten, added workplace protections for women and more.

House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, offered a different take, also reaching back to the 2013 budget fix that included targeted tax hikes.

“What we want to make sure people don’t forget is that as a result of this session we have one of the highest tax increases in state history,” he said. “We have the highest spending increase in state history.”

In Friday’s finale, lawmakers approved several major items: a tax-cut bill, a budget bill, the medical marijuana legislation, lottery restrictions and construction financing for more than $1.1 billion worth of projects. They faced a Sunday deadline for passing them.

The $103 million tax-cut bill was approved by both chambers with only one dissenter, Sen. Branden Peterson, R-Andover. Some homeowners and renters will see bigger refund checks in October, just a month before the election.

The construction plan headed to Gov. Mark Dayton after smooth rides through the House and Senate. When few people jumped up to debate the package, Senate Capital Investment Committee Chairman LeRoy Stumpf, DFL-Plummer, sounded surprised.

“Maybe everyone’s asleep,” he joked. Given the long hours lawmakers logged this week, it was possible.

The largest single item is $126 million to complete the Capitol renovation. The smallest is $78,000 for work on a historic bridge in Hanover.

The most intense negotiations surrounded $22 million devoted to the Lewis & Clark Region Water System pipeline project in southwestern Minnesota. With federal money bottled up, state lawmakers were delivering money for Minnesota’s end of a project that also affects Iowa and South Dakota. It is meant to draw water to 300,000 people in the region, feeding drinking water supplies and fostering business growth.

The tax bill allows counties and cities in the region to raise local taxes toward a local share and unlock about $2.2 million more annually from the state. All told, the pipeline could take more than $60 million to put in.

The last bill to pass was a $283 million spending proposal that puts the state on the hook for even more into the future. The 577-page bill contains raises to long-term care attendants, provides pothole repair funds, distributes grants for high-speed broadband development and boosts payments to schools and scholarships for early childhood education.

Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, said he was worried the additional spending would leave Minnesota’s budget in a precarious state. “We’re going to be right back into deficit because of all the spending we did,” he said.

Democrats said the spending addressed key priorities without overextending the state treasury.

“The economy is not faltering,” said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Dick Cohen, DFL-St. Paul. Besides, he noted, lawmakers committed even more of a $1.2 billion surplus to tax cuts this year with scant opposition. “They were the ones who said we should give it all back and not have any money on the bottom line, so you can’t have it both ways.”

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