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Political Notebook: Negotiations ramp up as deadline nears

The action in St. Paul has shifted from hearing rooms to closed-door meetings.

The action in St. Paul has shifted from hearing rooms to closed-door meetings.

DFL Gov. Mark Dayton and legislative leaders are ramping up private negotiations over the budget. Lawmakers and the governor have until May 22 to cut a deal on the budget if they want to avoid going into special session. Failure to pass a budget by July 1 would result in a partial government shutdown.

At issue is what to do with the state's $1.65 billion budget surplus. Dayton wants most of those dollars used to increase spending — especially in education. The Republican-led Legislature wants the bulk of those dollars used for tax cuts.

Sen. Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, has played a central role in plenty of end-of-session deals. The former Senate majority leader said if negotiations go well this week, it could herald an on-time finish for session. But if things blow up, that's a bad sign.

"This is a critical week. We have to make progress this week or we've got problems. Big problems," Senjem said.


At this stage of the session, Capitol reporters resort to dragging camping chairs up to St. Paul as they spend hours sitting outside of rooms waiting for the governor and legislative leaders to emerge. And the media aren't the only ones shut out from the talks. Rank-and-file legislators are also left to wonder what is happening behind closed doors.

"Whether you are in the majority or the minority, it gets frustrating because you are cut out and your constituents are cut out. And it shouldn't be that way," said Rochester DFL Rep. Tina Liebling.

Medical faculty license bill advances

The Minnesota House unanimously passed a bill last week that would make permanent a medical faculty license that allows extraordinarily skilled physicians trained in other countries the opportunity to practice at the state's two academic medical centers — Mayo Clinic and the University of Minnesota.

Rep. Matt Dean, R-Dellwood, sponsored the bill. He told fellow lawmakers it is important to keep this license in place so that facilities like Mayo Clinic can recruit world famous physicians and bring them to Rochester.

"There are very, very rare circumstances for physicians of extraordinary skill," Dean said.

Since the law took effect last year, the Minnesota Board of Medical Practice has issued four medical faculty licenses for physicians hired to practice at Mayo Clinic. Without Dean's bill, the medical faculty license would expire July 1, 2018 and these physicians would no longer be allowed to practice in Minnesota.

Dean's bill would give the license a new name — "Licensure of Eminent Physicians." It also sets aside $1,000 per year for the board to process applications. The bill still needs to pass the Senate and would then head to the governor's desk for his signature.


Ban on Zip Rail funding advances

Tucked within a $1.1 billion package of tax cuts is language that would prohibit public dollars from being used to build a high-speed rail line from Rochester to the Twin Cities without legislative approval. It also blocks the use of eminent domain to build the rail line. If a developer is constructing a rail line that costs more than $1 billion, the bill requires them to carry environmental insurance.

Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, served on the House-Senate tax conference committee and pushed to get the language in the bill. He said it is extremely important to his constituents and will help protect taxpayers' money.

"These projects like this are boondoggles," he said.

Not included in the bill is language to remove Zip Rail from the state's passenger rail plan. Zip Rail was a proposed high-speed rail line from Rochester to the Twin Cities. Last year, the Minnesota Department of Transportation announced it was ceasing work on the line due to a lack of funding. Drazkowski said the fact that language was left out was an oversight and he is going to seek to add it to the bill.

Senjem also served on the conference committee. He said he doesn't think it is necessary since the Zip Rail project is dead. But he said House members pushed hard to get the language in the bill.

He added, "We're putting something in state law that is nonexistent, at least in terms of a viable concept right now."

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