Minnesota Now with Cathy Wurzer

Minnesota lawmakers up late for contentious debates Wednesday: here’s what’s left to do this weekend

Representatives sit at their desk in the House chambers
The Minnesota House begins its new session at the State Capitol on Feb. 12.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

State lawmakers are entering the final stretch to get work done at the Minnesota Capitol. Tensions flared Wednesday night when DFL House Speaker Melissa Hortman cut off debate on a bill connected to a new paid family leave program. After the bill passed and Democrats called it a day, the chamber filled with Republican lawmakers calling for the day’s session not to adjourn.

MPR News senior politics reporter Dana Ferguson joined MPR News host Cathy Wurzer from the Capitol to discuss what happened and what’s left to do this weekend.

Read the full story Tensions flare at Minnesota Capitol as debates stretch on, Democrats try to force quicker votes

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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Audio transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING] CATHY WURZER: State lawmakers are in the final few days at the Minnesota Capitol, and things are getting a little testy. Tensions flared last night when House Speaker Melissa Hortman cut off debate on a bill connected to a new paid family leave program. Here's what it sounded like in the chamber after the bill passed, and Democrats called it a day.

MELISSA HORTMAN: Representative Long moves that when the House adjourns today, it adjourns until 11:00 AM Friday, May 17, 2024. All those in favor, please say aye.

HOUSE MEMBER: Aye.

MELISSA HORTMAN: Those opposed, please say no. The motion--

HOUSE MEMBER: No!

MELISSA HORTMAN: The motion prevails. Calendar--

HOUSE MEMBER 1: Division! Division! Division! Division!

HOUSE MEMBER 2: Madam Speaker, division.

CATHY WURZER: Our politics reporter Dana Ferguson joins us from the Capitol to talk about what happened, what's left to do this weekend. Hey, Dana. How are you?

DANA FERGUSON: Hi, I'm good. How are you?

CATHY WURZER: Well, I've seen this happen before in the House and in the Minnesota Senate. So it's always a little bit of a surprise when it goes off the rails. I'm wondering, both chambers worked late. The Senate pulled an all-nighter, and, of course, that tension in the House. Wasn't there a-- this was like a long debate they had in the House before the speaker called for a vote, right?

DANA FERGUSON: That's right. So just before midnight, there was a motion to let the House work late. And right after that, House Speaker Melissa Hortman called a snap vote on a proposal increasing the payroll tax to fund the state-paid family and medical leave program that's set to take effect next year.

So after eight hours of debate on the bill, which was primarily led by Republicans, she called the vote with little notice, which resulted in the response we heard earlier from GOP members. DFLers then tabled the rest of their bills yesterday and adjourned.

Throughout, Republican members on the floor tried all options at their disposal to keep up debate or prevent a cutoff to floor action. And I should note, too, in the Senate, there was apparently a member that threw a rules book at the Senate president during their very long debate.

CATHY WURZER: OK I've not seen that before. GOP lawmakers, I'm assuming, getting back to the House, were not too happy about what happened.

DANA FERGUSON: No, they called out points of order and shouted in frustration. And this morning, Minority Leader Lisa Demuth told reporters that Democrats were suppressing the vote of the minority.

LISA DEMUTH: By limiting the debate, the majority party is not only disrespecting the minority, they are also disregarding every constituent that we are here and elected to serve. Every voice, regardless of party affiliation, deserves to be heard and given the opportunity to contribute to the decision-making process.

DANA FERGUSON: As you alluded to, Cathy, it's not the first time that minority members have tried to run out the clock to block certain bills or exert leverage over a capital investment bill. But it does suggest the weekend will be a long one since lawmakers can't vote after midnight on Sunday.

CATHY WURZER: Has Speaker Hortman or any other DFL legislative leader responded about why they took the action they did last night?

DANA FERGUSON: They haven't. We expect to hear from the speaker at some point today, but so far, there's not been a chance to ask her what was going through her mind. Earlier this week, she and Senate Majority Leader Erin Murphy said they were frustrated by offers that had come forward from Republicans stipulating their conditions for putting up votes for a bonding bill. And while the leaders from both parties have been in private meetings, it doesn't seem like they've had any success in reaching a deal that could help with an orderly close to the legislative session.

CATHY WURZER: Some GOP House members engaged in what you might call a filibuster earlier this week on another bill. Given what we saw last night and what happened in the Senate, you could argue that things are testy at end of session, but they seem much more testier than in the past. Do you think all this suggests that the end of session is not going to go smoothly?

DANA FERGUSON: I think it could go either way. Typically, this late in session, we see these sort of public blow-ups, and sometimes they help move the needle in private discussions. So it could be the proverbial blow-up that helps get conversations moving behind the scenes. But that would require some willingness to budge from both sides. And just days before leaders refocus on the campaign trail, they might just want to get out of St. Paul and start the push for House control in 2025.

CATHY WURZER: There is a number of unanswered questions heading into the last weekend of the legislative session, right?

DANA FERGUSON: Yes, there are a few big questions hanging over these last five days and, really, three days that lawmakers can vote. We don't know if lawmakers will be able to pass a construction projects package, known as the bonding bill, because Republican votes are needed to pass it. And so far, they've not said they're willing to put up votes.

There's also a variety of budget touch-up bills that are still working through both chambers. It's just not clear everything will make it through in time because Republicans have been speaking extensively on each bill moving through, and that eats away at the clock. Finally, there are some vote math questions all around. Remember, the Senate is split 34 to 33, so not much margin of error for Democrats.

CATHY WURZER: Right. So what are some of the bills that are on a potentially murky track?

DANA FERGUSON: First, there's a bill that would put an Equal Rights Amendment before voters in 2026. The proposal to legalize sports betting isn't a sure thing, especially in the Senate. And a couple other bills that were supposed to move through the House last night that preempt bans on rainbow flags in classrooms and eliminate the so-called "gay panic defense" have also failed to gain traction in the Senate.

CATHY WURZER: OK, I'm curious about what's standing in the way of getting those bills to the governor's desk.

DANA FERGUSON: Yeah, it varies. For sports betting, there is bipartisan support and opposition. So it's just a question of getting 34 members behind it. For the ERA and those other bills, it's mostly a question of whether all 34 DFL senators support them and can get them passed. It just takes one DFLer breaking to sink an issue for the year. We saw that with a pair of gun bills that passed the House, but won't move to the Senate because Senator Grant Hauschild has said he won't vote for them.

CATHY WURZER: The bonding bill came up earlier in our conversation. This was supposed to be the main order of business. This session was supposed to be a bonding bill, right? Any indication that there are any talks happening around that?

DANA FERGUSON: Not really. There have been discussions among top leaders and GOP lawmakers after GOP lawmakers issued their list of conditions to pass it earlier this year. But this morning, the Senate Finance Committee met to discuss the package, and there was still opposition from Republicans.

CATHY WURZER: So is there a plan at all to get this session wrapped up and done on time?

DANA FERGUSON: [LAUGHS] We haven't heard much from DFL leaders this week. They've said they're frustrated by Republicans' move to put up demands for a bonding bill. And this morning, Governor Tim Walz told my colleague Ellie Roth that he's still hopeful that negotiations will be productive.

TIM WALZ: Bonding is being used as leverage against other things, and it's being used to hold up on different things that may or may not happen. I think that's understandable to a certain point, but we're running out of time. I think now let's do bonding. It's not going to leverage something else. So let's do the bonding bill. Let's reach a compromise. We're really within a matter close. We're a couple percentage points away from being able to close that up.

CATHY WURZER: Now, we should say, Dana, that the bonding bill has been used in the past as leverage against other things. Another big issue that lawmakers have been talking about is getting this minimum wage set for rideshare drivers. Where is that now?

DANA FERGUSON: Yeah, that bill is set to come up for a House floor vote on Friday, tomorrow. DFL leaders said it's still being workshopped, but they're confident they can approve it before the end of session. Uber and Lyft has said they will drop services in the Twin Cities and beyond under the current language. The bill's authors say they think the companies are bluffing since they stayed in Seattle, even after city leaders there took a similar route. So that could come down to the wire in the legislature.

CATHY WURZER: Wow, they're still workshopping that. I hate to even bring this up-- any talk about a special session?

DANA FERGUSON: Oh, not yet. But it's getting harder to see everything getting wrapped up before the deadline for votes Sunday at 11:59 PM with each passing day and debates stretching out on almost everything.

CATHY WURZER: Oh, my goodness. All right. What an end of session. Thank you, Dana. We appreciate it.

DANA FERGUSON: Thanks, Cathy.

CATHY WURZER: We've been talking to MPR News politics reporter Dana Ferguson.

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