Lawmakers strike deal on schools, pandemic bonuses

The Minnesota state House floor
The Minnesota Legislature convenes for the first day of a special session on June 14. The deals are trickling out at the state Capitol, and lawmakers will have to race to approve a new budget.
Glen Stubbe | Star Tribune via AP file

More major pieces of the next state budget fell into place Tuesday, including a massive education funding agreement and a plan to provide bonuses to some front-line workers who powered through despite risks to their own health during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The bills still need to be passed by the House and Senate. And a full state budget must be in place by a week from Wednesday to avoid any interruptions of government services. 

Gov. Tim Walz and top Minnesota legislators were expecting to lay out new agreements Wednesday that they hope will chart a course to the finish during a joint news conference soon.

“We’re picking up steam,” House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said, noting her frequent texts with Republican Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka as they work to seal up deals. “There are certainly a lot of things on the precipice of getting done and a lot of bills getting closed up.”

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The education pact is notable because that area consumes more than $4 of every $10 spent from the state treasury.

School districts are in for a significant boost in aid — about 2.5 percent more on their basic student allowance next year and 2 percent the year after. That will bring it above $6,800 per student by year two. Some districts get extra based on specific challenges or levels of poverty in their areas.

Senate Education Chair Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes, hailed it as the biggest investment in school aid in the past 15 years.

“Something the schools have been asking for for a long time: A lot of money and no mandates. And that’s what we gave them,” he said.

The deal does not include a plan proposed by Senate Republicans to send public money to private schools.

Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent, DFL-Woodbury, said the deal should give comfort to districts who have already sent out layoff notices to teachers and staff as they worked to adjust their budgets for fall.

“Some districts are in worse shape than others in terms of the cuts they were having to make, but I do think this will mean that some teachers will be able to keep their jobs,” Kent said.

COVID-19 bonuses in the works

Top legislators also offered the first details about a $250 million pandemic bonus program. Specific information is still scarce, but Hortman said a panel of nine will be set up to decide eligibility, award levels and other aspects, with a goal of having decisions around Labor Day.

Seven of the nine panel members would have to agree on who should get money, which Hortman said is no easy task. She described her preference.

“Those members of the front-line hero staff that are lower paid, don’t have access to paid leave and don’t have work environments that they were compensated for the additional dangers that they were going through,” Hortman said. 

Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said federal money coming to Minnesota as part of the American Rescue Plan will likely be used to foot the tab.

“We're acknowledging that there are a lot of people on the front line of this: long-term care facilities and others that we want to say, ‘Yes, we acknowledge that you were there,’ and we want to give a bonus related to that,” he said.

It’s among several COVID-19 relief programs included in this new budget. There are tax breaks for businesses that got federal PPP loans and laid-off workers who collected extra unemployment benefits. There are also more grants for distressed businesses.

Some bills have passed

Still, more late-developing pieces of the budget are beginning to emerge.

Lawmakers are primed to approve subsidies for a new lumber processing plant in Cohasset. They plan to help counties that saw property tax dips due to a court ruling over pipelines. A proposed land bridge to reconnect parts of St. Paul’s Rondo neighborhood should get some planning funding.

Legislative leaders are intimately involved with public safety negotiations. 

Both Hortman and Gazelka call it the most difficult of the bills remaining. Democrats are pushing for more police standards, while Republicans say they don’t want to go too far to hinder the way police do their jobs, especially with violent crime a growing concern. It could be several days before a bill is complete.

Only a few of the smaller budget bills have been sent to Walz’s desk so far. They include: 

  • An agriculture spending plan that puts money into biofuel and meat processing programs.

  • A higher education bill that aims to hold down tuition increases.

  • An energy and commerce plan that increases investments in solar power and has a program to combat catalytic converter theft.

  • A cultural heritage and outdoors bill that uses sales tax proceeds from the voter-approved Legacy Amendment.

A transportation package and environmental budget package might not be far behind.

A few others are written and ready for votes but haven’t yet been put on the docket. 

Spat over refinery safety standards

The Senate approved a sprawling economic development package on Tuesday that includes the grants to businesses as they recover from COVID-19 disruptions and help for those that sustained damage during periods of civil unrest over the past year.

But what wasn’t in the bill caused the most commotion.

The Senate reversed course on a refinery safety standard. Last week, a large majority of senators backed a measure that would require petroleum refineries to meet new safety criteria. Most workers on construction or repair work involving hazardous chemicals would need to have gone through apprenticeship training, with the requirements setting in beginning in 2022.

That clause was later stripped from the bill and a move Tuesday to put it back in failed on a party-line vote with all Republicans opposed. 

Joe Fowler of the Minnesota Building Trades Council, who rallied outside the chambers with pipefitters in hardhats and safety vests, expressed disappointment.

“We support those who support us. Words matter, actions matter more. And they just took an action that was easily enough to vote yes on,” Fowler said. “Instead they voted no.”

Lawmakers could vote over the next week on a bill that would require refineries to maintain or contract with full-time fire departments that could conduct inspections and respond to incidents.

Sen. Jason Rarick, R-Pine City, said there’s time to fashion a deal, but it might have to wait until next year.

“I have made the commitment since this came forward to continue to work on it, to continue to address it,” Rarick said. “This is an issue that cannot happen in a couple of days, or a couple of weeks or even a couple of months.”

DFL lawmakers haven’t given up on enacting new refinery standards during the special session. They say skilled workers are imperative, given the dangers if something goes wrong. Sen. Karla Bigham, DFL-Cottage Grove, urged colleagues to back minimum training levels at fuel facilities.

“Nowhere in here does it say you have to sign up for a union or it has to be a union apprenticeship program,” she said. “Folks, this is generally about worker safety.”

Parks, zoo will stay open

Another thorny issue was headed for a resolution. Lawmakers put the finishing touches on an environment budget bill that pays for operations at Minnesota’s state parks, the Minnesota Zoo and other outdoor recreation programs.

The compromise bill lacks any delay to the vehicle regulations drawn up by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

The standards step up fuel efficiency requirements for cars and trucks sold in the state and require manufacturers to make more electric vehicle models available. The clean car rules are patterned after similar regulations first imposed in California.

Minnesota Pollution Control Agency Commissioner Laura Bishop said the onset of the rules is still a ways off.

“It would not be implemented until Jan. 1, 2024,” Bishop assured lawmakers. “So the first car-make models that would be subject to this would be model year 2025.”

Republicans had threatened to hold up other program funding unless they secured more of a delay. But they say the existing gap in enactment will make the car rules a campaign issue and present more chances to derail them without affecting other critical services.

The Department of Natural Resources plans to send notices to people with camping and other park event reservations to warn them about potential disruptions if the bill doesn’t become law soon.

Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul, said passage in coming days will ensure “the state parks will be open starting on July 1.”