Scant time left for lawmakers as they grasp for session deals

People stand and speak in the house chamber
House Speaker Melissa Hortman speaks with backers of legal sports betting outside the House chamber.
Brian Bakst | MPR News

Minnesota lawmakers limped into their final weekend of session with more loose ends than closed deals around use of a historic budget surplus, raising the prospect of a mad dash or a monumental meltdown.

Friday was a day of little progress in public as negotiators holed up in private to figure out how to cut taxes, deliver aid to schools, shore up public safety and take care of other problems exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I would expect to be here through the weekend,” Senate Majority Leader Jeremy Miller, R-Winona, advised members as the chamber adjourned for the day.

Legislators are struggling to fill in a framework that calls for $4 billion in new spending and just as much in tax relief.

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House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said Friday morning that there remains enough time to pass several bills prior to a midnight Sunday deadline, if lawmakers back off areas of disagreement.

“People hang on for a long time to their original vision of what this bill should be before they realize that if they don't compromise, they're not going to have a bill,” Hortman said. 

She added, “When you look at dividing up money, there's a lot of numbers in between zero and 100. And so it seems to me that when we have a projected budget surplus, and we're arguing about how to invest and how much to invest in different areas, that's a solvable problem if people can be reasonable at the table.”

Hang-ups were everywhere. 

In education, the House and Senate are split over how to carve up $1 billion over the next three years. 

Senate Education Chair Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes, said he was ready to throw it into two pots: $58 million for literacy programs and $941 million for a buydown of special education costs that are swamping school district budgets.

“It should not be a political football. It shouldn't be,” Chamberlain said. “This is easy.”

House DFLers said there should be investments in mental health counseling for students and other focused aid.

A tax deal is close that would cut the lowest income tax rate and expand a renter’s tax credit program, Hortman said. 

As some lawmakers worked behind the scenes on big issues such as the tax bill, the House and Senate were making progress on some smaller measures, such as a long-delayed drought relief package for Minnesota farmers. 

The Legislature first weighed a plan to help livestock and crop farmers cope with parched land amid an August heat wave. An agreement that now awaits final votes would provide payments of up to $7,500 depending on the number of applicants.

Rep. Paul Anderson, R-Starbuck said the state moved too slowly to respond to the agriculture emergency. 

“Speaking for a lot of farmers, drought now is the furthest thing from our minds with being inundated by rain,” Anderson said.

Agriculture Commissioner Thom Petersen said his agency will work as fast as possible to get the money out. He said it’s still critical for affected farmers. 

“I see the line at the sale barn by me on Sunday nights of people still reducing their herds as we're still a few weeks away from cutting hay,” Peterso said. “And what I'm hopeful with this money is that it will help pay a bill or two.”

The measure is included in a broader package that also has money for bird-flu response. That bill hadn’t been totally buttoned up but it appeared on the verge of getting there.

The House passed a compromise higher education bill Friday soon after wrapping up conference committee negotiations with the Senate. A Senate vote was expected Saturday.

The measure, passed by a vote of 117-15, includes funding increases for the Office of Higher Education, the Minnesota State system and the University of Minnesota.

Several Republicans criticized the bill as too much spending, but Rep. Connie Bernardy, DFL-New Brighton, the chair of the House Higher Education committee, defended the measure.

 “We need to be investing in education, and this surplus needs to be investing in our students so we can turn it around so a student can work part time,” Bernardy said. “They can finish their degree in four years, and they can graduate without a mountain of debt.”

The Senate sent mixed signals about a bill stepping up enforcement around price gouging.

In the morning, senators voted to pull a bill out of committee and put the measure a step from final action. But then after a lunch-time recess, the GOP-led chamber defeated a move by Senate DFLers to debate the bill and vote on it immediately. 

Supporters have linked the bill to concerns about the shortage of infant formula. The House has already passed the bill.

Attorney General Keith Ellison said his office needs more authority to investigate and take action when retailers jack up prices during a crisis.

“In this case, profiteering off and off of an item people need to keep their babies alive is wrong. This sure looks like price gouging. What can we do about it under Minnesota law? Not enough.”

Ellison said Minnesota is one of 13 states without a state law addressing price gouging. 

Meanwhile, changes to Minnesota liquor laws were at the finish line. The Senate approved a package that would, among other things, permit wider sales of takeaway 64-ounce growlers and 32-ounce growler cans, bottles of craft liquor from distilleries and expand bar hours during the World Cup. House approval was all but assured.

The prospects dimmed on a bill to legalize sports betting, amid a dispute over the venue. The House has passed a bill giving tribal casinos exclusive jurisdiction; senators had moved on a separate plan allowing horse racing tracks into the mix.

Hortman was asked if she saw a viable path to compromise. “I don’t think so,” she said.

Chamberlain, who sponsored the Senate bill, agreed the bill was stuck. 

“This is not about the tracks. This isn't about the tribes. They say it is. But it's ultimately getting a product to the consumers. So the deal they offered the tracks ultimately does not work for consumers and we will not accept that deal,” he said. “So yeah, I would say as close to done as you can get.”