Minnesota budget gels slowly but ‘end is not exactly in sight yet’

The Minnesota state House floor
Minnesota legislators are making progress on enacting a new state budget, but there are still many votes to take and one big sticking point.
Glen Stubbe | Star Tribune via AP

Updated 4 p.m. Thursday

Minnesota lawmakers chipped away at a budget to-do list Thursday, passing more bills to keep government operations afloat next month while narrowing down areas where they’ve struggled to secure agreement.

Rest areas, road projects and transit operations won’t face any disruptions after the Senate voted to send a transportation finance package to Gov. Tim Walz. A House vote began the process of ending a pandemic-related moratorium on rental evictions; a Senate vote on that could come Friday.

Two giant areas of the state budget were also on the cusp of guaranteed funding. Lawmakers advanced a $21 billion education spending plan for preschool through high school toward votes this weekend. A massive health and human services bill that will boost spending on child care programs and raise the pay for personal care attendants was also poised for action.

A public safety budget bill — that funds state law enforcement agencies and prisons — continues to cause difficulty at the Capitol as legislative leaders struggle to bridge differences on police accountability.

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Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said negotiators have reached the point where they need to abandon items where no compromises can be found. He pledged there will be changes to policing in a final bill but discussion now is over how many.

“It’s not like people are dug in where they won’t do it. It’s just that people want as much as they can possibly get. That’s the nature of it,” Gazelka said. “But we’re at the end and so it’s time to wrap it up.”

Gazelka wouldn’t divulge areas of deadlock.  But there have been session-long disputes over the ability of police to stop motorists for minor infractions and transparency around body camera and disciplinary data.

July 1 deadline looms

Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent, DFL-Woodbury, said lawmakers are cutting it too close for comfort with an end-of-the-month deadline approaching. A new two-year budget must be in place by July 1 to avoid a possible cutoff in services and employee layoffs.

“This is an unacceptable place for us to be,” Kent said of the decisions being shoved to the brink. “We are too close and the end is not exactly in sight yet.”

So far, five budget bills have passed both chambers and await Walz’s signature. Two more need signoff from only one chamber.

Transportation was the latest to get needed approval by a unanimous Senate vote after passing with considerable House support a day earlier.

Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson and the chair of the Senate transportation committee, said it’s none too soon given that state officials recently notified contractors about the potential stoppage of road projects.

“These folks are all counting on us to get this bill done and get it done today. And get it over to the governor, have him sign it,” Newman said before the vote. “And at least insofar as the transportation arena is concerned, we will have solved that shutdown problem.”

Eviction moratorium wind-down sparks debate

In the House Thursday, debate spanned hours on a plan for phasing out the rental eviction moratorium by replacing the executive order Walz issued last March. It’s part of a housing budget bill. 

Most friction surrounded a requirement that landlords supply 15-day notice of back-due rent and possible assistance tenants could tap into.

Republicans say a required notice that steers delinquent renters toward assistance is onerous and tips the balance in favor of tenants. But Rep. Mike Howard, DFL-Richfield, said it’s in everybody’s interest to make use of financial help available through the RentHelpMN.org program.

“If a renter is evicted, that landlord cannot collect rental assistance,” Howard said. “By ensuring we have better communication between landlords and renters, we help renters get the assistance they need and landlords get made whole.”

DFL lawmakers say Minnesota is one of a small number of states that lack notice provisions as a standard practice.

The bill allows evictions for tenants in serious breach of a lease as soon as July. But those only behind in rent would have more time to get square, anywhere from a few months to a year depending on whether they qualify for the financial aid.

Rep. Peggy Scott said the timeline stretches out too far and the notice provision is yet another roadblock for property owners stuck with tenants they want out.

“People know when they owe rent. This is not rocket science. We don’t need another half of a month to notify people that they owe rent,” she said. 

Scott, an Andover Republican, added, “Time is of the essence.”

The bill passed 72-59.

Election changes fall by the wayside

Another bill headed for a vote funds state departments and agencies. It does not include a Senate Republican push for Minnesotans to show a photo ID when they vote, or a plan backed by House Democrats for automatic voter registration and easing limits on when felons regain voting rights. . 

Negotiators instead put together a new election provision dealing with absentee ballot drop boxes. The language, which was not previously in any House or Senate bills, describes minimum requirements for local election officials to follow in locating, securing and monitoring the boxes.

DFL Secretary of State Steve Simon said additional language is definitely needed for local officials who choose to use the drop boxes.

“Minnesota statute, as we sit here today, in essence says drop boxes may exist, and that’s it,” Simon said. “There’s nothing in law, hasn’t been to this point, regulating in a major way security or chain of custody or monitoring or anything of the kind. So, this is a great step forward.”

Still, Simon said additional work is needed in the coming months to fine-tune the law in preparation for the 2022 legislation session and the next election. He says a legislative working group would be able to help.

Rep. Jim Nash, R-Waconia, said he wants a formal process for putting together such a working group. He said bipartisan membership would result in a better outcome. 

“Something perhaps a little more formal when we’re dealing with something that is as hot an issue as election integrity, for both sides, would be more prudent than not,” Nash said.

The bill also establishes Aug. 15 of each year as India Day, to honor Minnesotans with Indian ancestry. It also sets the stage for a permanent, year-round switch to Daylight Saving Time, if and when the federal government allows the move. And it preserves funding for the food assistance program known as Market Bucks, which gives low-income Minnesotans a $10 coupon when they spend $10 in federal food assistance at farmers markets.