Minnesotans, lawmakers in waiting game on budget deal

care not cuts
Union leaders and other advocates rally to continue a 2 percent tax in healthcare providers (photo: Tim Pugmire)

Minnesotans filled the Capitol halls and rallied on the steps in 80-degree heat for more health care funding, immigrant drivers' licenses and restoring felon voting rights, while rank-and-file legislators filled the hours in committee rooms, combing through budget bills line-by-line.

All of them were waiting on Thursday for word -- any word -- from Gov. Tim Walz and the top two leaders in the Minnesota Legislature, who've spent days in closed-door negations on the state's two-year, nearly $50 billion budget. In the absence of an agreement, majority Senate Republicans readied a bill to keep government operating at existing levels if no deal is struck -- autopilot legislation that Democrats said was a sign the GOP was giving up on compromise.

Time is running short for a deal. The House and Senate are constitutionally required to adjourn the regular legislative session by midnight on Monday, and all parties have said they want to avoid going into an overtime special session, or worse yet, a potential government shutdown later this summer if they don't finish on time.

But other than an occasional glimpse of the governor, legislators and staff dipping in and out of meetings, there's been no word on whether a deal has been struck or what it might entail.

The bill for continuing appropriations emerged late in the day Thursday and was debated in a committee shortly after. A full Senate vote could come Friday.

“We hope for the best but we plan for the worst, prepare for the worst," said Sen. Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes, who added the alternative was a full-blown shutdown after July 1.

"It is taking pressure off. It's premature," said Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville. "It's surrendering before we should surrender."

"There's nothing in here that I see as a surrender," countered Senate Finance Committee Chair Julie Rosen, R-Vernon Center, who described the measure as an "insurance policy" if good-faith bargaining collapses.

In the past two shutdowns -- 2011 and 2005 -- the courts have approved emergency spending for essential services. But a more-recent Supreme Court ruling has some doubting that would happen again if the Legislature doesn't sign off on the spending.

The development came as everyone was in a waiting game.

House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, took a break from negotiations to rally with supporters of his bill to allow unauthorized immigrants to get drivers’ licenses. It would let people obtain a license or state ID card without showing proof of their legal status in the United States. The House passed the bill last month, but the Republican-controlled Senate has not touched the issue.

“We are committed to it. We are fighting for it day in and day out," he said. "There is a possibility of getting it done this year."

That was a familiar message around the Capitol on Thursday. Rep. Ray Dehn, DFL-Minneapolis, addressed a rally on the Capitol steps supporting a bill to restore voting rights to convicted felons after they are released from their incarceration. The bill was tucked into a House budget bill, but it hasn't moved forward in the Senate.

"We work up until the final gavel at midnight on Monday, we'll keep working until that time and hopefully we'll be able to get this across the finish line this time," he said. "It's had a bill in place since 2002, I think the time has come and the time is now."

Representatives of labor unions and social justice groups rallied to put pressure on budget negotiators to preserve a 2 percent tax on health care providers that's set to expire at the end of the year. Democrats want to extend the tax indefinitely, but Republicans call it the "sick tax," and say it should end as scheduled. Pat Guernsey of AFSCME Council 5 accused the Senate of taking a backwards approach to health and human services funding.

“They’ve crafted a stagnant budget proposal that ends Minnesota’s health care provider tax and makes up for the loss with drastic cuts to health care, child care and the home care program so many of us rely on," he said.

But it wasn't a totally unproductive day. The House and Senate passed a final compromise on a bill to regulate and license pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs) in the state. PBMs, middlemen in the pharmaceutical industry, negotiate with drug manufacturers on behalf of the government and insurers.

The deals they negotiate determine the availability and prices of prescription drugs, but they operate out of the view of public and regulators.

Sen. Scott Jensen, R-Chaska, said that leads to confusion about how drug prices are set.

"We needed to shine a bright light on this and understand why aren't these rebates getting all the way down to the patients," he said. "Why are these clawback mechanisms hurting small pharmacies."

The bill is now on its way to the governor's desk.

MPR News Reporters Brian Bakst and Tim Pugmire contributed to this story.

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