Bars, masks and taxes: The Legislature is back in town

Serving bars on the first day
Gov. Tim Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan served lawmakers, including Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, bars on the opening day of the 2022 legislative session on Monday. Gazelka is one of the Republicans competing to run against Walz in November.
Brian Bakst | MPR News

Gov. Tim Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan welcomed lawmakers back for the 2022 Legislative session with some baked goods as they entered the House and Senate. Walz had pans of bars to share. 

“Lemon bars, there’s a couple missing,” Walz said. “Scotcheroos. I gave these out to office staff. We’re starting on a sweet note.”

Walz, who rolled out his supplemental spending proposals and a package of public construction projects ahead of the session, said he’s optimistic about getting things done.

“This one feels different,” the governor said. “It feels different because the needs are there.”

Gov. Tim Walz gives away baked goods
Gov. Tim Walz gives away baked goods to Rep. Sandra Feist, DFL-New Brighton, and others at the Capitol on Monday.
Brian Bakst | MPR News

Some lawmakers weren't at the Capitol to sample a scotcheroo. Because of COVID-19, some are still working remotely.

In the House, lawmakers will again have the option to call in to take part in floor sessions. Committee hearings will also be conducted remotely. And, masks are required for everyone in all spaces controlled by the House.

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DFL House Speaker Melissa Hortman reminded members of the requirements in a letter last week.

“Zoom has been serving us very well, whether it’s in committees or on the floor or for press conferences or interacting with our constituents,” Hortman said. “So, I would expect we’ll continue to be online an awful lot.”

The Senate will again operate using a hybrid model. Senate Majority Leader Jeremy Miller said he’s comfortable with the mix.

“We will be there in person for those who feel comfortable being there,” he said. “And those who do not will be able to participate remotely.”

Lawmakers are expected to spend a lot of time this year talking about crime, workforce issues, and putting together a public works bonding bill.

DFL Senate Minority Leader Melisa López Franzen said COVID-19-related issues are still looming large.

“Every Minnesota family, community and business has been hit hard by this deadly pandemic that has upended our economy and strained our public health, our long-term care and our child care systems to the brink, and Minnesotans are feeling it,” López Franzen said. 

Republican House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt said there are a lot of areas of agreement that could be addressed early in the session. His list includes replenishing the unemployment insurance trust fund, front-line worker bonuses and what he calls a reasonably sized bonding bill.

"If we just worked on the things that we all agree upon, let's do those and get them out of the way,” Daudt said. “The worst thing we can do is say, 'oh, I'm going to give you something we agree upon for something that nobody wants. That's sort of holding hostage and it's bad legislating. So, if we have that kind of a session it's going to be a failure."

The House and Senate took care of some organizational housekeeping and little else during a short session.

In the House, Rep. John Thompson of St. Paul offered a formal apology to Rep. Eric Lucero, R-Dayton, for calling him a racist last year. Thompson had earlier agreed to make the apology to resolve an ethics complaint that Lucero filed against him.

“So, Rep. Lucero I’m going to apologize for calling you a racist on the House floor and also apologize for failing to be courteous,” Thompson said.

Off the floor, key lawmakers floated some trial balloons. 

Hortman suggested the House and Senate should agree soon to spend a billion dollars to replenish the unemployment insurance trust fund and another billion to give frontline pandemic workers bonuses. 

Two people in masks talk to reporters.
DFL House Speaker Melissa Hortman, right, and House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler talk to reporters on the first day of the 2022 legislative session at the Capitol on Monday.
Brian Bakst | MPR News

"We know we know we have an unemployment insurance trust fund deficit. We know that at the low end that's about 1.2 billion,” Hortman said. “And we know we have this unfinished business for front-line workers. In a show of good faith, Democrats and Republicans working together, we could take care of Minnesota's workers and businesses in pretty short order.” 

Miller suggested Senate Republicans might be open to one-time tax rebates instead of permanent rate cuts, but he said the rebates would have to be “a heck of a lot” bigger than those proposed by Walz, and that they cannot be called “Walz checks” as the governor suggested. 

“It is not Gov. Walz’s money,” Miller said. “It’s the people’s money. It’s the taxpayers’ money.” 

MPR News reporter Brian Bakst contributed to this story.