Minnesota Senate balks at tax bill, then passes it

9:40 AM, Apr 30, 2013   |    comments
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ST. PAUL, Minn. -- The main tax bill in the Minnesota Senate went on a roller coaster ride of sorts Monday, first failing and then eventually passing, but not before creating a flurry of unanticipated political drama.

It requires 34 votes to pass a bill in the state senate, if all 67 members are present.  

When the tally board opened Democratic Caucus leaders assumed they had votes to spare, but the no votes outnumbered the yes votes 34 to 32.

Republicans, who are in the minority this session and strongly opposed to the tax increases in the bill, initially rejoiced at the result.

"We wondered it they had enough votes, frankly," Senate Minority Leader David Hann of Eden Prairie told reporters immediately after the tax bill was defeated.

"This bill is pretty indefensible, and we really didn't hear anyone get up and try to defend it, which is unusual."

The DFL caucus went into private huddle to regroup, and returned shortly afterwards with a motion to reconsider the vote.  That motion passed with 38 votes, and then the debate on the merits of the bill began in earnest.

Majority Leader Tom Bakk of Cook told reporters, explaining what went on behind closed doors during the break.

"I asked them. I said it's always harder to pass the bill that's going to pay for it.  I just asked them who's going to help us pass the bill that pays for what you want."

Because votes supporting tax increases can easily be turned into weapons on the campaign trail, it's typical that politically vulnerable members of the majority wait to cast a yes vote until they know it's absolutely necessary to pass the bill.

In the case of Monday's vote, Senator Ann Rest -- one of the bill's chief authors -- hadn't even had a chance to vote yet when the roll call closed.  She had planned to be the 35th vote in favor of the bill.

"I kept watching the board waiting to see 34 DFL votes in favor, and I was going to be the 35th," Sen. Rest explained later.

"I saw that they were voting yes, then no, then yes, then no," Rest recalled, referring to the ever shifting tally board featuring green and red lights.

She then watched in dismay as fellow Democrat, Senate President Sandy Pappas, closed the roll call with the no votes still leading the yes ones by a count of 34 to 32.

Sen. Bakk said that Pappas was misled by what he called "shenanigans" on the floor. Three Republican Senators who clearly opposed the bill had lit up on the board as green lights, or yes votes.

After Pappas closed the roll the three GOP senators flipped back to red lights, or no votes -- which is allowed in the Senate, but not in the House.

Democrats made a motion to reconsider, which passed after some debate.  On the second try, the tax bill passed by a 35 to 31 count. 

That sets a stage for a joint House-Senate conference committee to reconcile differences between the chambers' versions.

Governor Dayton has some problems with both versions, which will give rise to three-way negotiations on the tax bills.  Each feature dropped will affect spending bills too.

That would help pay for more spending on schools and early education, as well as targeted property tax relief and aid to cities and counties.

The Senate bill, as passed, raises the income tax rate on those currently in the third tier.  That includes roughly seven percent of all taxpayers, or couples with more than $140,000 in taxable income. 

That figure translates to $194,000 in gross income, according to nonpartisan Senate research.  The House version of the bill, by contrasts, applies the income tax hike to the top one percent of earners, a group that starts at $400,000 in taxable income.

The Senate bill would also lower the state sales tax rate from 6.8 percent to 6 percent, or 6 cents on the dollar.  But it would at the same time expand the group of taxable items, adding clothing and some professional services.

The House bill does not change the sales tax rate, and Governor Dayton -- who initially proposed a similar change -- abandoned the idea more than a month ago.

The Senate bill also increases the tax on cigarettes by 94 cents per pack, bringing the total tax in the state to $2.17 per pack. If that became law only 10 other states would have higher taxes on cigarettes.

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