Stalemate over special session appears to be easing

Snow starts to cover fallen leaves
Snow starts to cover grass and fallen leaves on the grounds of the Minnesota Capitol in St. Paul earlier this month.
Andrew Krueger | MPR News

A legislative standoff over Walz administration commissioner confirmations appears to be easing in a way that would make a special session over worker bonuses and drought relief more likely.

Democratic House Speaker Melissa Hortman and Republican Senate Majority Leader Jeremy Miller said Tuesday that they expect to resume negotiations soon. They’re trying to reach a deal around special pay for front-line pandemic workers, farm drought relief and emergency nursing home assistance.

Those have been hung up over a Senate GOP threat to deny confirmation to Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm and other top advisers of Gov. Tim Walz.

Miller told the MPR News Minnesota Now program on Tuesday that he’s willing to postpone the confirmation debate if Democrats add Republican proposals on coronavirus measures to a special session agenda. The proposals were outlined in a letter Monday and include regulatory relief and up to $250 million for long-term care facilities, as well as lifting some COVID-19 vaccine policies instituted by Walz.

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"If we can find agreement on the areas that were outlined in that letter, Senate Republicans would be willing to back off any discussions regarding commissioners for a special session," Miller said.

Hortman said removing confirmations from the special session agenda is a big step forward.

But she said other agreements need to be struck for lawmakers to return to the Capitol prior to the late January start of the 2022 session.

Hortman said she believes agreement can be found over how to distribute $250 million in bonus payments for workers on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Front-line worker pay will be pretty fast, I think, to solve. There’s a Republican proposal and a Democratic proposal and a pretty natural middle ground. And I think all the parties on the frontline worker pay group see where that middle ground is and we can go to that,” Hortman said on MPR’s Morning Edition. “The key was getting past that really divisive effort to take out the health commissioner.”

There’s pressure to resolve some of the issues in a special session to get money out the door.

The Legislature will learn early next month how much money they have to work with. Lawmakers left $1.2 billion in federal aid unspent and trends around monthly tax collections point to a hefty budget surplus.

“There is quite a bit of money that is probably going to be there on the bottom line that will allow us to fund some things we weren’t able to fund in last year’s budget deal,” Hortman said.