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Senators pass tax bill following uncertainty

Senators enter the Minnesota Senate chamber to vote on a tax bill Monday. (Don Davis/Forum News Service)

ST. PAUL -- Minnesota senators passed a tax plan 35-31 Monday -- eventually.

It took two tries, but they moved the bill forward, nearly two hours after it initially failed 34-32 with seven Democrats voting no.The second vote set the stage for legislative leaders and Gov. Mark Dayton to hammer out a final budget plan.

The Senate tax bill, sponsored by Sen. Rod Skoe, DFL-Clearbrook, would raise income taxes on the top bracket. It also would lower the sales tax rate to 6 percent while expanding what is taxed to more items such as clothing, auto repairs and digital downloads. It includes a cigarette tax increase of 94 cents per pack.

"Some people pay more and some people pay less, but you do better in the end," Skoe said. "Reform isn't easy."

All but one Republican, Sen. Dave Senjem of Rochester, voted against the plan. Five Democrats joined them.

Sen. Greg Clausen, DFL-Apple Valley, and Sen. John Hoffman, DFL-Champlin, originally voted no but switched to support the bill the second time.

The income tax change, which raises the top rate from 7.85 percent to 9.4 percent, was a key concern for Sen. Susan Kent of Woodbury, one of the Democrats who voted against the bill both times.

She said there are good pieces of the plan, but that change is a concern for her constituents.

"It's about my district," she said.

Most of the DFL lawmakers who voted against the plan come from suburban Twin Cities areas.

"There is a lot of mutual respect for the fact that we do represent diverse districts," Kent said of Democrats.

The initial tax vote was one of the most dramatic in recent years as the vote remained tight for about 10 minutes, with several senators not voting and others switching from yes to no or vice versa.

As Senate President Sandra Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, ordered voting to end, three Republicans who were voting "yes" quickly changed to "no" and the bill failed.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, immediately called a private meeting of his members in a room just off the Senate chambers.

After senators voted to reconsider the vote, Pappas told colleagues that she jumped the gun in closing the vote. Sen. Ann Rest, DFL-New Hope, said she was "stunned" that Pappas ended the vote because she had not yet pushed her voting button.

Bakk said that in the DFL meeting he did not twist arms, only explained that they had voted for spending bills and now it was time to vote to raise taxes to support that spending.

Kent said she was not pressured to change her mind.

"There were no screws being tightened," she said.

The tax bill "always is a hard vote," Bakk said.

Bakk said several of those who voted "no" the first time around volunteered to switch. He said DFL leaders did not count votes in advance.

Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, said the fact that the DFL originally defeated its own tax bill should be significant to Minnesotans because it shows that "even members of the DFL caucus know this is not a good bill."

Republicans said the tax plan will hurt families, individuals and businesses.

"This is a tax attack on everyone who lives in Minnesota or even puts a foot in Minnesota," Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, said.

"If we step back and really think about what's best for the state, this tax bill is not it," Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Fairmont, said.

Dayton had proposed a similar sales tax change but dropped it after strong opposition.

The state faces a $627 million deficit for the next two years and lawmakers also want to cover new investments in areas such as education. The Senate tax plan raises $1.84 billion.

"I think it's important for us to put our budget on a course of stability going forward," Skoe said.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.