Legislature hits budget home stretch with no spare time

The Minnesota Capitol in St. Paul
Minnesota lawmakers have left themselves with little breathing room to complete a new state budget before a potential shutdown. But the final obstacles are clearing.
Andrew Krueger | MPR News

Minnesota lawmakers stood ready Wednesday to pass a pair of remaining budget bills after an extended special session that brought the state to the brink of another government shutdown.

The end is in sight after a public safety measure that will change police laws passed amid deep division over the end product. And in a flurry of activity in the early morning hours, the House and Senate effectively ended the COVID-19 peacetime emergency that Gov. Tim Walz has relied on to manage the state’s pandemic response.

The session’s conclusion neared despite a bumpy path and an immovable July 1 deadline for enacting a new state budget. If any of the bills faltered, some government functions wouldn’t be able to operate as normal and many state workers would get temporarily laid off.

The late drama has mostly surrounded a bill that funds the State Patrol, the court system and Minnesota prisons. That’s because it was the backdrop for contentious talks over police accountability.

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In lengthy House and Senate debates before the bill passed last night, the names of George Floyd, Daunte Wright and Philando Castile were invoked over and over as well as others who died in encounters with police.

First-term Rep. John Thompson, DFL-St. Paul, was a close friend of Castile.

“I am just sick and tired of being sick and tired. Because we’re going to lose another young man this year because of the inability to act on police reform. Everybody needs a little critiquing, including us — everybody. We can do better,” Thompson said. “We don’t need to fight each other every day, especially on things that matter to our community.”

Thompson said a pledge this week by Walz to push more measures through executive action and agency regulation gave him hope, although he still voted no.

Public safety budget graphic.
A breakdown of how the Minnesota House voted on the public safety budget bill.
(Click here to view a larger version) David H. Montgomery | MPR News

There were two additions Tuesday designed to secure the bill's passage. Lawmakers agreed to give people with outstanding warrants for nonviolent offenses other avenues than arrest to compel them to appear in court. And they made it a crime to share phone numbers or home addresses of law enforcement officers for the purpose of inciting harassment.

They didn’t revise or delay a new standard for justified use of deadly force, as Rep. Anne Neu Brindley and other Republicans wanted. 

She said the 2020 law has some bordering states refusing to offer emergency help to Minnesota police agencies, including her district around North Branch.

“By ignoring the very minor changes that we need to make to the use-of-force statute, my community is less safe,” she said. “And that’s what we’re looking for: Safety for all of our communities.”

Lawmakers declined to rewrite the state’s police body camera law to allow families access to footage soon after critical incidents. Nor did they restrict law enforcement from making traffic stops solely for faulty equipment, expired registration or tinted windows.

Rep. Mohamud Noor, DFL-Minneapolis, was among those who grudgingly voted in favor of the bill.

“I urge you to vote for this bill while at the same time knowing that we have fallen short because of our divided government and making sure that we continue on that track of providing justice,” he said. “All they’re asking for is for justice.”

The debates in the House and Senate included some sharp exchanges over the need to rebuild community trust in police and a sense that many in law enforcement feel abandoned. Other lawmakers brought up concerning crime trends as reasons to take a cautious approach.

Public safety budget graphic.
A breakdown of how the Minnesota Senate voted on the public safety bill.
(Click here to view a larger version) David H. Montgomery | MPR News

Rep. Dave Baker, R-Willmar, said the image of Minneapolis and other cities have taken a blow with an uptick in shootings.

“There is a problem with bad policy in those cities that is driving some wedges between people,” Baker said. “It is not a mistake that police officers are really struggling to do the right thing because they are right now so afraid of making the mistake.”

Rep. Aisha Gomez, DFL-Minneapolis, said the struggles in her city were being exploited by Republicans. 

“It is incredibly painful to sit here and have my community’s profound suffering weaponized for political ends,” she said.

Emergency powers end, another special session?

With hours to go before the new budget kicks in, Walz has signed most of the bills that dictate how roughly $52 billion will be allocated for the next two years. 

Another bill sent his way overnight pays for many core government agencies, such as the attorney general’s office and the Revenue Department.

It's notable for another reason.

"The ending of the emergency powers of the governor as of July 1," said Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake.

Gov. Tim Walz on the end of his emergency pandemic powers

The COVID-19 emergency declaration has been terminated after being in place since March of 2020.

Walz issued a statement saying while the declared emergency is over, he has assurances that special federal nutrition aid will keep flowing.

House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, said nothing precludes the governor from invoking a new emergency if conditions worsen.

"We are not disarming our ability to fight a new version of the pandemic that ends up with higher case numbers or more Minnesotans being infected, hospitalized or dying," he said.

It does head off a July special session had Walz extended the authority again.

The Legislature still might need another special session this year to pass a bill providing premium pay to front-line pandemic workers. If that happens, it won’t be until after Labor Day.