Expectations of overtime set in at MN Legislature

Two men in front of the Capitol
House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt (right) and Rep. Greg Davids, R-Preston, talk to reporters on Wednesday as the deadline for the session to end approaches.
Brian Bakst | MPR News

Top state leaders sounded resigned Wednesday to the near certainty they’ll fail to complete work on a new budget and several other priority items before the Legislature must adjourn on Monday.

“Special sessions tend to be more the norm now than special,” Gov. Tim Walz said.

“It will be very difficult to finish on time given the logistics involved in putting the bills together,” said DFL House Speaker Melissa Hortman. “Time is getting short.”

“It’s possible that we get done on time. It’s also some major roadblocks that we have to navigate through — so everything from police accountability to emergency powers, California emission standard,” Republican Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said. “There’s just a number of things that we have to figure out.” 

The trio have been locked in closed-door negotiations for days and have revealed little about how far along those talks are. But all three said independently that progress was being made, and they were moving closer to an acceptable middle.

Among the major matters left: a roughly $52 billion two-year budget; a slate of measures designed to make policing more transparent and accountable; tax revisions related to COVID-19 assistance, and whether to delay new clean-car standards that are moving toward administrative approval.

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The part-time Minnesota Legislature, which has met every month since January 2020 amid the pandemic, is on course to convene again in June regardless of whether they finish on Monday because Walz has said he’ll keep the state under an emergency for the foreseeable future. 

This is one of the most unusual regular sessions in memory for a number of reasons.

For one, much of the work and negotiating has occurred remotely. The Capitol is eerily quiet for this time of year — relatively few lawmakers, no public demonstrations, no lobbyists.

That’s because of COVID-19 of course. And the pandemic has created additional complications. 

Emergency authority used liberally by Walz is a flashpoint and Republicans are insistent that he let go of those powers. So is a bundle of money from Washington — $2.8 billion is coming in and there’s a big fight over who gets to decide where it goes. 

Walz said Wednesday he would welcome the Legislature’s involvement.

“I have made it very clear to the Legislature that this is a shared responsibility. Now, technically, if we don’t get done by Monday, the $2.8 billion can then be spent by the executive branch,” Walz said. “I said I don’t want to do that. That’s not my intent...I made it clear to them we should do this together.”

Negotiations are also occurring behind the scenes on the police changes.

That could be around scaling back traffic stops for minor offenses, such as expired registration or a broken light are part of the conversation. Police body camera rules and internal data sharing about police misconduct are on the table. And Democrats are pushing to curtail no-knock warrants unless there are exigent circumstances.

Walz, DFL lawmakers of color and faith leaders made a final plea Wednesday for action on something substantial. 

“If it’s only window dressing, if it’s only just something to pacify the situation and allow it to smooth over, then what you will see is another event will happen,” said Imam Makram El-Amin. “The scab will be reopened, the wound will be reopened again. We are here to heal and to close the wounds.”

Minnesota was thrust into the national spotlight after last year’s police killing of George Floyd, which led to the murder conviction of a former Minneapolis officer last month. During that trial, another Black man, Daunte Wright, was killed during a police stop in Brooklyn Center; a former officer is charged in that case.

“Why would you not seize the moment?” Walz added. “We can’t continue with the status quo.”

Republicans, including  Gazelka, said they’re not ruling out making changes. But they’re framing some measures as “anti-cop” and said those won’t be embraced.

Another unresolved issue is how to align the state and federal tax codes on COVID-19 relief.

The IRS has said it won’t tax forgiven Payroll Protection Program loans to businesses who kept people employed during the pandemic. Enhanced unemployment benefits are also exempt federally. But unless state law is changed both will be subject to state taxes.

The U.S. Treasury Department said this week that the state could use its substantial aid money to backfill the lost revenue. 

Republicans are pushing for a vote before the weekend, if nothing else to give filers certainty. Practically speaking, those filers will likely have to seek extensions or wait for a rebate if they’ve already filed because tax administrators won’t have time to adjust anyway.

House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt says it should still be a priority.

“I hope Minnesotans are paying attention to what Democrats’ priorities are. Because there are lot of Minnesotans — 250,000 because of unemployment benefits, 200,000 plus additional because of PPP loan forgiveness that is being taxed -- that are going to be hurt necessarily,” Daudt said. “And what Democrats are doing at the state Capitol is rolling a doobie.”

That’s a reference to a big vote Thursday around marijuana legalization in the Minnesota House.

The bill would create the framework for legalizing and regulating marijuana for adult use. Sponsors call it the cannabis bill. 

Minnesota would join more than a dozen other states in decriminalizing possession and personal use of marijuana. Some criminal convictions for past offenses would also be wiped off slates.

The bill is likely to pass the Democratic-led House with some Republican help. It has no chance this year in the Senate.

It’s a symbolic marker on an issue where public opinion has really shifted. For Democrats, there are also political benefits. Minnesota has two pro-marijuana major parties and there’s a big fear among DFLers that they could suffer in next year’s elections if the party isn’t seen as leading on legalization.

Meanwhile, lawmakers are staring at another summer of considerable work. 

Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent, DFL-Woodbury, said it’s become far too common for work to spill over.

"I've been here long enough to never make plans for early June," Kent said. “I make the analogy, it's like, sleep when the baby sleeps. I find the breaks where I can. I just know we're going to have work to do in June and ready to do it."