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Walz on session: 'Functioning government matters'

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Gov. Tim Walz enters the House chambers
Gov. Tim Walz enters the House chambers at the Capitol before delivering his State of the State speech on April 3. Walz is getting ready to boast about the new state budget that he says moves Minnesota forward even if he had to leave some priorities behind.
Evan Frost | MPR News file

Gov. Tim Walz doesn't want to call this a status-quo legislative session, even though some of his political allies and fellow Democrats have already started calling it that. 

"I think the status quo in government were shutdowns and bickering," the first-term DFLer said in an interview with MPR News. 

Yes, lawmakers adjourned the regular session without a budget, and yes, Walz did have to call a one-day special session to finish the work. But he said things could have gone much worse negotiating a deal with one of the only divided legislatures in the nation. Republicans control the Minnesota Senate by two votes, while Democrats lead the House. 

"Functioning government matters," he said. "In a very chaotic and unpredictable world, there's a sense that normalcy to how we go about our democracy is important."

Sitting in his office in the corner of the Capitol, Walz pointed to a jar of peanut M&M's given to him as a parting gift by former DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, who was no stranger himself to messy legislative endings. It was full a few weeks ago, but Walz and his staff tapped into it during late-night budget negotiations. 

Walz is caught up on sleep, but now his team is poring over the details of the agreed-upon budget bills to make sure everything is in order before he gives them his signature. He has limited time to sign the bills now that lawmakers have adjourned. 

Some of the items Walz focused on during his campaign last fall aren't in those bills: a gas tax increase, new gun control measures and a bill legalizing recreational marijuana. 

Instead, lawmakers passed a budget that spent more on education, continued a tax on health care providers that was set to expire and gave middle-class Minnesotans a modest income tax cut, among other things. 

"I think Minnesota got a new pair of Rockport shoes this year, nothing fancy, nothing too exciting, but a good pair of sensible shoes that will move the state forward," said DFL House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler. 

Walz is reluctant to get into the nitty-gritty of how negotiations went down, but he said getting the deal done wasn't easy. He wanted tax increases to pay for his priorities, and Republicans didn't. 

"I felt like if I had the cure for cancer and we needed to raise taxes to implement it, there would be a group of people who would say no," he said. 

In closed-door negotiations, Walz said sometimes he was the tough voice in the room forcing a compromise, and he also went into the minor details and wording of the bills. 

"My job as governor was at times to say, no, you've got five minutes to come up with a compromise here and this is the way it's going to be," he said. "And other times, whether I think it was appropriate or not, I was down in the weeds."

His style got high marks from people in both parties who were in the room with him. Winkler said he's direct, energized and exactly the person he presents himself to be publicly.

"There's no difference between the Tim Walz on a public stage and the Tim Walz in a private room," he said. 

Republican Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, who was often at odds with Walz in the negotiating room, said ultimately they were an efficient team. 

"Divided government is very difficult, and in Minnesota, we are required to pass a balanced budget," he said. "We did that." 

Walz is also hesitant to be too critical of Republicans in the aftermath of the deal, even though he acknowledges that there's much more he wanted to do this year. 

That's because the same challenges are present next year. He'll still be governor, and the Legislature will still be divided between Republicans and Democrats. But there is one big difference: Next year is an election year when every seat in the House and Senate will be on the ballot, and he won't. 

"November of 2020," he said. "It is coming, there will be a reckoning as there should be in a democracy."