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Minn. transportation debate takes center stage as budget negotiations begin

Minnesota legislators entered private negotiations Monday over how to spend a $900 million budget surplus, making transportation their priority in an attempt to find a compromise between vastly different financing plans.

After a brief meeting behind closed doors to kick off negotiations, Gov. Mark Dayton and other top leaders stressed it was early but that they were optimistic about hammering out deals on road and bridge repairs, tax relief and other spending priorities. The transportation debate will get the top billing, with Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt calling it a reasonable first step that will help determine how much money lawmakers have left over.

“Once transportation comes together, all the other pieces will fall into place,” Daudt said. “If you spend a large chunk on gen fund dollars on transportation, you can’t spend it on other stuff.”

But it won’t be easy — as in other areas, the two sides are far apart. Dayton and his fellow Democrats in the Senate are pushing for a gas tax increase and some other fee hikes to drum up $600 million a year over the next decade, while Republicans who control the House want to tap into the budget surplus and shift existing taxes on auto part sales.

It’s a spillover from last year, when lawmakers couldn’t find agreements on transportation or tax cuts and agreed to punt until 2016. And there’s less pressure this time around. Because the state’s two-year budget is already in place, no bills need to be passed.

There are just two weeks remaining in this year’s session. But that can seem like an eternity at the Legislature, where deals often come together quickly — and late. Dayton and legislative leaders met for weeks to negotiate last year’s budget, reporting frustration and little progress until the pieces of a compromise started falling in place just days before the scheduled adjournment date.

“I don’t know how we’re going to resolve this without doing that, but I don’t want to do that,” Dayton said. “I don’t think it’s productive.”

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