- Associated Press - Friday, May 13, 2016

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) - With nine weeks down and one to go, little has changed since lawmakers returned to St. Paul in early March set on assembling a major transportation funding package. And there’s no quick solution in sight.

Minnesota’s legislative leaders held to the same battle lines in the transportation funding debate as they prepared Friday to head into the session’s final week, divided between two options: raising the gas tax for road and bridge repairs or using existing dollars. Finding a compromise could be the first move in helping resolve other matters such as what size to make the tax cuts and other spending proposals that come out of the Legislature this year.

Here’s a look at what’s at stake and the major players:

GOV. MARK DAYTON

LEADER FILE: A Democrat in his final term in office, Dayton’s made it clear he’s not scared of taking some political risks to do what he feels is right for the state. But he caused himself some trouble by declaring a gas tax dead last year only to revive it as the best bet to raise billions of dollars for transportation fixes, insisting he was only giving his political read of the DFL-backed proposal.

TOP PRIZES: It’s a goal he outlined in his State of the State address: Don’t break the bank. His caution will likely limit how much of the state’s $900 million budget surplus will go toward road and bridge repairs. Plus, he wants to save some cash for his other priorities, like a proposal to expand preschool programming statewide.

WIGGLE ROOM: The governor has stressed he’s open to any funding mechanism, but he’s also repeatedly bashed the GOP’s tax-free proposal as unworkable. He told reporters Thursday he’d spend the weekend cobbling together a compromise pitch for Monday, but was mum on details - including whether it would involve a tax hike.

THE BOTTOM LINE: “It will be a true compromise involving things the House doesn’t like and things the Senate doesn’t like,” he said, laying out his plan after meeting privately with the two sides Thursday. “I think it’s reachable.”

HOUSE SPEAKER KURT DAUDT

LEADER FILE: In his second year as speaker, Daudt is looking to make good on a pair of campaign promises that go hand in hand: a road and bridge package and a suite of tax cuts. While some Democrats express hopes of a deal coming together, the Zimmerman Republican has been the most optimistic of the bunch. A diverse caucus of rural and suburban GOP lawmakers will temper Daudt’s deal-making nature.

TOP PRIZES: He’s got three: No gas tax, no gas tax and no gas tax. Daudt dismissed a recent offer from Senate Democrats - lowering the amount of the tax from as low as 16 cents per gallon to 12 cents per gallon - as not being serious. And while he’s committed to tapping the budget surplus for transportation needs, saving enough to put together a package of tax cuts is top priority.

WIGGLE ROOM: It’s far from a sure thing, but Daudt and Republicans haven’t slammed the door entirely on ponying up for a light-rail train line from Minneapolis to southwestern suburbs. He and his top negotiators also haven’t shown the same animosity toward a proposed increase to license tab fees that they’ve reserved for a gas tax hike.

THE BOTTOM LINE: “Let’s get back to where we were last year when you said a gas tax was dead,” Daudt said Friday, referring to Dayton’s comments.

SENATE MAJORITY LEADER TOM BAKK

LEADER FILE: An old hand at the backroom negotiations that bring the Legislature to a close, the veteran Democratic lawmaker knows how quickly a deal can come together. Still, he’s been the pessimist of the three leaders, constantly stressing how far apart the parties are on transportation and other issues.

TOP PRIZES: Bakk and his Senate Democrats have put it all on the table: tax cuts, transportation, extra school funding and money to tackle racial disparities. Some of these proposals will get left behind, and others will become fodder for the campaign trail as Democrats look to retain the Senate majority.

WIGGLE ROOM: The Cook Democrat drew the ire of some of his own, environmentally conscious caucus members after agreeing to some funding and policy bills last year, so he may be more cautious this time. The Senate has already offered to drop the price of the tax hike at gas pumps that Democrats in the chamber proposed. How much more will they compromise?

THE BOTTOM LINE: “We’re just not making any headway in the conference committee,” Bakk said of the top transportation negotiators in the House and Senate.


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