- Associated Press - Friday, May 1, 2015

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) - Break out the hard hats: The real hammering in Minnesota’s construction-zone Capitol is about to start.

With less than three weeks until the May 18 session adjournment deadline, the pressure is on to nail down a deal on a new state budget and decide the fate of a nearly $1.9 billion surplus.

Here’s a look at the power players, the issues and the political stakes ahead of the negotiations that will either lead to a timely finish or a special session marked by government shutdown speculation:

GOV. MARK DAYTON

LEADER FILE: Dayton, the liberal stalwart with three-plus decades in politics, won a comfortable re-election last year and entered his final term promising to be “unbound” in his approach. The 68-year-old has ruffled both friends and foes in the process, feuding with fellow Democrats and building bonds with Republicans. But he remains as unpredictable as ever.

PRIZED PROPOSALS: Having the state pay for quality preschool programs for all 4-year-olds. Upgrading Minnesota’s transportation network in part by enacting a new fuel charge. Requiring farmers to leave buffer zones between crop fields and waterways.

NEGOTIATION CONSIDERATIONS: Dayton’s core agenda has never picked up steam. Republicans hate his gas tax, top Democrats aren’t even with him on the universal preschool plan and farm-group opposition to the buffer requirement has been fierce. Still, with no re-election concerns, Dayton can march to his own beat. Renovations at the Capitol have shifted the governor’s main base far offsite, making it challenging for Dayton to rub elbows with legislative leaders. Will they get his blessing before moving ahead with a deal or test his mettle with one they cut on their own?

THE BOTTOM LINE: “I have the ability to be patient. I said before, I’m not going anywhere on May 19. … I’m not going to back down on the things that I’ve identified and continue to identify as absolutely essential for me to have.”

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DEMOCRATIC-CONTROLLED SENATE

LEADER FILE: Tom Bakk, a crafty lawmaker and retired carpenter from the Iron Range, is in his 20th year in the Legislature. He’s spent the past five years as the head Democrat, including the last three as Senate majority leader. Bakk revels in late-session bartering and is known for holding out for every last scrap.

PRIZED PROPOSALS: A sustainable transportation plan - even if it takes a tax increase. Making modest investments in schools, colleges, nursing homes and workforce development. Undoing the final traces of accounting shifts from past deficits. Adding to Minnesota’s rainy day fund.

NEGOTIATION CONSIDERATIONS: Everyone else in the Capitol faced voters last year. In 2016, all 67 state senators and Bakk’s majority will get a turn. The Senate budget is positioned between the House and Dayton proposals in size, meaning the Democrats likely have to move the least from start to finish. But there are some pressure points. For instance, GOP negotiators could try to extract something from Bakk to assure the yearly rent for a new Senate office building he championed. And for Bakk, a past candidate for governor, future political aspirations may be on his mind.

THE BOTTOM LINE: “I think the sweet spot for the speaker and I is to figure out how I get a transportation bill and he gets a tax bill. Once we figure out what those two pieces cost then we’ll know how much money is left for the other budget divisions to spend.”

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REPUBLICAN-CONTROLLED HOUSE

LEADER FILE: Kurt Daudt, the genial newcomer to big-league bargaining, rocketed to the top of the House in his fifth year in the Legislature. He’s forged solid working relationships with both Dayton and Bakk, and shown savvy in the early skirmishes. A former car salesman, his nature is to cut deals.

PRIZED PROPOSALS: Achieving a tax relief package with a desired $2 billion in cuts and credits. Passing a transportation plan that relies only on existing tax money and borrowing. Securing a raft of state policy changes, from revising teacher layoff rules to curbing the administration’s regulatory power.

NEGOTIATION CONSIDERATIONS: The House GOP has to move toward the Senate’s and Dayton’s plans. One in four of Daudt’s 72 caucus members are rookies already being targeted for 2016 defeat. His challenge is to strike a deal that satisfies both moderate, suburban Republicans and more conservative members in outstate Minnesota - or risk alienating part of his caucus by courting Democratic votes for a two-year budget almost certain to be Minnesota’s largest-ever.

THE BOTTOM LINE: “If Tom (Bakk) and I and the House and the Senate agree on provisions, we may want to push the envelope and send the governor things that he is uncomfortable with. … We have to measure if the governor is resolved when he says he’s going to not accept positions or veto bills.”

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