ST. PAUL, Minn. — A modest surplus means Minnesota lawmakers don't have to tinker with the state budget.
A philosophical divide over state borrowing for public works projects will complicate efforts to craft a mutually agreeable bonding bill.
A Vikings stadium financing package is possible but not certain, although the debate over spending public money on such a project will cast a large shadow no matter what.
The Legislature's 2012 session opens Tuesday with plenty of ambitious goals, and one down-to-earth reality: Nothing HAS to happen before lawmakers bolt for the campaign trail.
"More than ho-hum but less than blockbuster," is the prediction of the business lobby's Charlie Weaver, a former Republican legislator and ex-gubernatorial chief of staff. "By and large, these guys just want to get out of here."
The session must end by mid-May, but top lawmakers say their goal is an April finish.
It's easy to see why. November's elections will be hotly contested as the GOP tries to defend young majorities, with revamped political maps adding another layer of uncertainty. Plus, the bitter aftertaste still lingers from last summer's government shutdown and overtime session that extended deep into July.
The Senate's top Democrat, Tom Bakk, said the public won't stand for an acrimonious replay of 2011.
"We ought to go out of our way this session to show people we can come in here, limit the agenda, not throw bombs just to satisfy constituencies, do what needs to be done and go home," Bakk said.
There are obvious differences between the two years. Last time, a $5 billion deficit was a gargantuan problem to solve. In 2012, there is a projected $876 million surplus, which by law is destined for rainy-day accounts depleted by past budget fixes. Even if a late-February economic forecast improves the balance sheet, schools are next in line to have state IOUs repaid.
Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton and top lawmakers from both parties enter the session with a common mission: Taking steps that will help put 175,000 unemployed Minnesotans back to work.
All sides talk about giving tax breaks, streamlining business permitting and easing regulations as ways to jolt the job market, but they aren't on the same page about how far to go.
Dayton wants to entice companies to add to payrolls with tax credits — but he's counting on Republicans agreeing to end certain corporate tax preferences the governor regards as loopholes to pay for the package. For their part, Republicans are pushing to give businesses property tax cuts while Democrats contend homeowners deserve relief first.
Despite long-held Democratic resistance, GOP leaders also envision things like big cuts in state government payroll and an end to wage protections for publicly financed construction projects. House Speaker Kurt Zellers says it's the perfect time to stage government for the future rather than doing it in "triage mode" while coping with what had become perpetual deficits.
Still, every side can easily block the other side's ideas. GOP lawmakers don't even have to vote on Dayton proposals and he can veto Republican plans he doesn't like. To Tom Hanson, a budget chief under former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, it sets up a walk-away dynamic that wasn't an option last session when leaders were required to craft a budget.
"If someone doesn't agree, they just don't happen and the world doesn't end," Hanson said.
Except, that is, for ballot measures. The Legislature can bypass Dayton by voting to put proposed constitutional amendments before voters. Several amendments are floating around, covering everything from requiring supermajorities to raise taxes to demanding that voters show photo IDs.
Partisan lines are blurry when it comes to Vikings stadium legislation. The team wants hundreds of millions of public dollars for a new football stadium, either in the suburbs or in Minneapolis. Disputes over where that money comes from or where a new $1 billion stadium gets built have tied state leaders in knots. But team leaders and the NFL have added leverage now that the Vikings' Metrodome lease has expired. Still, there's no guarantee the Vikings will get a vote before adjournment.
A beleaguered construction industry has one eye on a stadium bill and the other on a public works bill. In even-year sessions, lawmakers typically authorize borrowing for civic centers, college laboratories, prison upgrades and a host of additional construction projects.
Dayton is requesting $775 million in state borrowing, but Republicans have already balked at the size. Senate Majority Leader Dave Senjem, who also heads his chamber's Capital Investment Committee, said he'll offer a smaller package with fewer local economic development initiatives.
But bonding bills, as they're known, are strategically unique. They require a three-fifths vote to pass. They must be expansive enough to get enough votes from lawmakers, particularly Democrats, who feel their districts would benefit, but not so big that many Republican lawmakers get sticker shock.
In 2004, those competing forces led to a collapse in negotiations and the Legislature left town without passing a bonding bill. That "do-nothing" session highlighted the risk of adjourning to the campaign trail without tangible accomplishments.
Republicans were in charge of the House back then, and the GOP saw a comfortable House majority fade to a two-seat edge. Neither the governor nor Senate was on the ballot that year, allowing voters to focus their frustration.
This time, all 201 legislative seats are on the line in the fall. And because of once-a-decade redistricting, many incumbents will be running in reconfigured districts with fresh territory and new constituents.
Some Capitol veterans say the confluence of limited money and electoral volatility works against bold-stroke proposals. That's how former Democratic Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe, now a lobbyist, sees it.
"I just don't think there is a lot of pressure for a lot of things," he said. "There are not high expectations and I think that's going to be met."