Minn. lawmakers to race the budget clock in special session

Minnesota Legislature
Legislatures are displayed on a monitor in the nearly-empty House Chamber at the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul. Minnesota lawmakers need to finish a new budget within the next few weeks to avoid a government shutdown.
Glen Stubbe | Star Tribune via AP file

It’s the Legislature’s version of being called to the principal’s office.

One budget area at a time, key legislators and agency commissioners have been pulled Thursday and Friday into meetings with Gov. Tim Walz, House Speaker Melissa Hortman and Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka. The committee heads lay out areas of dispute while leaders nudge them toward potential solutions.

“People worry about behind-the-scenes. That’s not really the way this works,” Walz said Friday, explaining how the 45-minute virtual meetings involving 12 to 15 people each have proceeded. 

“They presented them in a passionate, spirited way and then tried to reach some compromise. I have to tell you, I am more optimistic and have been optimistic we’d get this done. But I am super optimistic after yesterday. There were compromises reached.”

The goal, he said, is to get to final agreements by Sunday to begin pushing the plans through during a special session that begins on Monday.

Lawmakers have to finalize about a dozen mega bills that make up the two-year $52 billion state budget. It’s set to kick in on July 1, and without it all or parts of government will go dark.

Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, guaranteed in an interview this week that a shutdown won’t happen. She said she and the other leaders aren’t at the point of making top-down decisions. But they’re stressing the urgency to resolve things sooner rather than later.

“Having the conversation with the leaders has already prompted several people to wrap their bills,” Hortman said. “So I would expect we’ll continue to have good progress and get more bills wrapped up. And there will be some chairs that hang in there ‘til the last dog dies on something they care about a lot.”

Funding plans for colleges and energy initiatives are already finished. An economic development budget and one covering agriculture and broadband programs are also on the cusp of completion. But bigger budget areas — K-12 education, public health programs and state agency funding — are still in limbo. The same goes for bills that pay for pollution control and state parks as well as prisons and the state patrol.

Some of those are hung up over changes to policies rather than dollars and cents.

Senate leader Gazelka said those holding out can’t hold out for much longer.

A man speaks behind a podium while two people listen.
Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz (left) speaks at a podium as Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka (right), R-East Gull Lake and House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, listened in during a press conference Monday, May 17, 2021, in St. Paul.
David Joles | AP file

“We’re not going to get everything we want — both sides,” said Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake. “There are just certain things that either side is going to say we will never do.”

He said anything with deep division that changes the status quo will have to be set aside.

For his party, that probably means dropping a push for a photo ID requirement and provisional balloting around voting. For DFLers, Hortman said they’re letting go of some proposed environmental protections and workplace standards, such as a paid family leave requirement.

New police accountability measures are still in play but won’t be as expansive as Democrats want. And Republicans continue to seek a delay in a new rule to require more electric car models be on sales lots in coming years.

Gazelka said there’s room for compromise.

“We’re asking for a two-year delay and they’re asking for electric vehicle infrastructure,” he said. “We think that would be a good trade.”

Lawmakers got some encouraging fiscal news this week. Tax collections for May zoomed past projections — by about $1.8 billion in part because of a red-hot economy and because of a delayed tax filing deadline.

The new money won’t figure into this debate because monthly tax reports come with volatility.  

Minnesota Management and Budget Commissioner Jim Schowalter said it offers reassurance that last year’s financial funk due to COVID-19 has been shaken off.

“What you can do is act with confidence. You can absolutely move forward. We have every reason to put together a budget deal for the next two years, to get going so that we don’t have that uncertainty of a shutdown. We don’t have that distress about people not being able to go to state parks, get licenses, having construction projects stopped,” Schowalter said. “All of that can go away.”

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