As budget negotiations stall, lawmakers prepare for overtime

Educators rallied in the state Capitol on May 18, two days before lawmakers are set to adjourn for the year (Briana Bierschbach for MPR News)

As Gov. Tim Walz railed on budget negotiations Saturday in front of hundreds of teachers and union members gathered at the Minnesota Capitol, Republican senators were 100 feet away passing a resolution to fund state government in the event of a government shutdown.

None of it bodes well for a timely or tidy finish to the 2019 legislative session, which is constitutionally required to adjourn at midnight on Monday.

Despite days of behind-closed-door negotiations between top legislative leaders and the governor, they have yet to agree on a roughly $48 billion budget to fund state government for the next two years. Negotiations stretched until nearly 1 a.m. Saturday and didn't reconvene until early evening for a half hour meeting.  Legislative leaders departed with no news. 

The governor and legislative leaders haven’t revealed the details of those discussions, instituting a “cone of silence” on negotiations and canceling a scheduled appearance on public television Friday evening.

Walz was hoarse at an afternoon rally hosted by Education Minnesota, the state’s largest teachers union, but the former football coach and geography teacher yelled loudly into the microphone, sprinkling in a few curse words to emphasize his points.

“All those years of teaching, I wondered who the hell sat at that [negotiating] table,” he said. “Well guess what, 80,000 teachers sat at that table today.”

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The DFL governor and Democrats in the House are proposing a 3 and 2 percent increase in the education funding formula each year for the next two years. Republicans are proposing smaller increases for education.

It was one of several major sticking points between Republicans and Democrats before they stopped commenting on budget negotiations. Democrats propose to spend billions more than Republicans on state education and health care programs, and they want to raise new tax revenue to pay for them. Republicans have pushed back on raising taxes to spend more on government. 

"[The voters] told us very clearly, invest in our schools, invest in the teachers that make it happen, and invest in our children,” Walz said to cheers. “What I don't recall them saying is negotiate away our future to give tax breaks to millionaires. Not a damn one of them said it."

After his appearance, Walz was quickly hurried by staff back into his office and didn’t comment further on budget negotiations.

Republican senators pushed a resolution to fund state government in the event of a shutdown (Briana Bierschbach for MPR News)

Nearby, senators spent their afternoon debating a bill that would fund state government for the next two years if there's no deal by July 1, the start of the next fiscal year. Minnesota is constitutionally required to have a balanced budget by then or government will shut down. Republicans described it as a safety measure to protect services and state government employees if lawmakers can’t strike a deal.

“This is wise, it's prudent, it's responsible,” said Sen. Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes, the author of the bill. “It keeps everybody in their place, services are delivered, parks stay open, employees stay in the offices and in the field doing what they have to do."

Minnesota's government has shut down twice before, including a 20-day shutdown in 2011. Back then, the courts ordered funding for some government services to continue, but in a more recent state Supreme Court ruling, justices warned that ordering funding is not the role of the judicial branch.

Democrats in the Senate criticized the GOP's safety-net measure Saturday, calling it at best a political stunt, and at worst a sign Republicans had given up on negotiating with the House and governor.

“You’re throwing the towel in on the negotiations, you’re all done,” Senate DFL Minority Leader Tom Bakk said.

The proposal passed on a 35-31 vote. The House has shown no sign that they will pass a similar measure before session adjourns. 

The situation has created a sense of inevitability at the Capitol that overtime work is ahead.

If lawmakers don't finish their work by midnight on Monday, the governor can call them back into a special session to finish passing bills.

"Even if we get a deal, we're going to need some time to read the bills," said Rep. Zach Stephenson, a freshman Democrat from Coon Rapids. "It's important to me to actually review and know what I'm voting on, and I think we've gotten to the point where that's not possible before now and Monday at midnight. But I'm holding out hope that we have a deal before we leave here."

He's optimistic, despite serving in the only remaining divided legislature in the nation, with Democrats in control of one chamber and Republicans controlling the other.

"I think there's optimism that we're going to find a way through this," he said. "And really show the country that, even though we are the only divided legislature, we found a way to work together."