Still no special session, but more details of budget bills emerge

The Minnesota House chamber at the State Capitol in St. Paul.
The Minnesota House chamber at the state Capitol in St. Paul sits mostly empty May 16, 2019, as leaders work behind the scenes to wrap up a budget deal.
Steve Karnowski | AP

Minnesota legislators are starting Thursday without a special session scheduled — but with many more details in hand about the bills they must pass.

Although leaders had hoped to schedule their session for Thursday, Gov. Tim Walz has not yet announced when he will call lawmakers back to pass the budget measures that were unfinished when the regular session ended.

In an email to legislators and staff on Wednesday, DFL House Speaker Melissa Hortman said the earliest the special session could start would be Friday.

In preparation for the special session, lawmakers held a series of informational hearings Wednesday on most of the unresolved budget bills. The House and Senate held separate hearings.

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The public safety and judiciary bill includes money for the Department of Corrections to hire about 70 new prison guards. It was a priority issue after last year's on-duty deaths of two officers.

"The investment in properly staffing our facilities, our state prisons, is a big change in my opinion from the lack of attention to that issue that we've had over many years," said Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, the chair of the House public safety finance committee.

Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, the chair of the Senate judiciary committee, said the bill moves the state in the right direction on corrections staffing. Limmer also highlighted the bill's changes in the way law enforcement handles sexual assaults.

"We've noticed over recent years that that has been pretty sloppy and there's no uniformity on law enforcement. This begins to open the door on that, sheds some light even further on that, and we will want answers as we go forward," said Limmer.

The bill does not include two gun control measures passed by the House earlier in the session.

Lawmakers were also getting details on other bills.

The tax bill trims the second-tier income tax rate by a quarter of a percent, reduces the statewide business property tax and increases state aid to cities and counties.

The environment and natural resources bill includes money to combat chronic wasting disease and aquatic invasive species.

The education bill spends an additional $543 million on public schools, including a 2 percent basic funding formula increase each of the next two years.

Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, the chair of the Senate education committee, was pleased with the final product.

"We have a great bill that's a compromise in many ways. But one way it did not compromise is it's very much focused on students. It's funding what works. We know we'll be back here in subsequent years to do more."

Sen. Chuck Wiger, DFL-Maplewood, also praised the bill.

"It's an improved bill than what you had before with the significant, record investment. I applaud that, for the formula, two and two. The special ed cross-subsidy freeze, again a high priority."

Special sessions, not so special
Out of the last 10 legislative sessions, only one two-year biennium in 1999 and 2000 had no special session called.
William Lager | MPR News

The Legislature ended its regular session at midnight Monday after passing only a higher education budget bill. A last-minute attempt to pass an agriculture budget bill fell short that night in the House. The time crunch was due to the governor and legislative leaders not reaching their global budget agreement until late Sunday.

During the agriculture bill discussion Wednesday in the House, Rep. Gene Pelowski, DFL-Winona, complained that the Legislature too frequently fails to finish its work on time. Pelowski, who chairs a subcommittee on legislative reform, said he intends to hold hearings on ways to improve the process.

"This is the 17th special session in the last 21 years. So, we have had failure after failure after failure," he said. "And when attempts are made to reform this process, nobody is interested at the beginning of session, and apparently everybody is interested at the end of session."