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Fate in doubt for Minnesota minimum-wage and unionization bills

It appears that two of the DFL’s key priorities could be the casualties of politics and the last-minute rush to finalize the state budget.

“There are not the votes in the state Senate to pass a $9.50 minimum wage. If I brought it up, it would fail,” said Sen. Majority Leader Tom Bakk.
MinnPost photo by James Nord

It appears that two key DFL priorities — raising Minnesota’s minimum wage and unionization efforts for child-care workers — could be the casualties of politics and the last-minute rush to finalize the state budget.

Complicated end-of-session political maneuvering is colliding with the reality that lawmakers are running out of time to pass final versions of all the major bills that detail  more than $35 billion in state spending.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk said Thursday that he’s unsure if a minimum wage hike can pass this session.

Budget takes priority

House Majority Leader Erin Murphy said her caucus is focused on passing the state budget bills before lawmakers must adjourn on Monday. So far, legislators have not sent a single omnibus budget bill to Gov. Mark Dayton for his signature.

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That means a bill that would allow child-care workers and personal-care assistants to organize — which inspired a record 17 hours of debate in the Senate earlier this week — may not receive a vote in the House, although the bill might be heard on Friday.

There simply might not be enough time to finish passing all the budget bills if House Republicans mount a similar effort, which Capitol watchers have indicated is likely.

“I understand members of the Republican caucus have strong opposition to that piece of legislation,” Murphy said. “That looked like a very long filibuster to me, and I hope the Republicans in the House choose a different course.”

Minority Leader David Hann told reporters  Thursday afternoon that Republicans in Senate weren’t intentionally talking out the clock.

“We’re not filibustering at all,” he said. “We are working to try and solve the budget.”

Murphy, who spoke vaguely about whether the unionization measure would be able to pass her chamber in time, said she’s confident that the Democrats in control of the Legislature and the governor’s office will be able to wrap up the budget in time.

When asked whether such issues as the unionization efforts and the minimum wage — key priorities for Democrats this session — would fall by the wayside, Murphy demurred.

“I think that it is important for us to make sure that we have the budget in line, and we can get that done,” she said.

Conference reports start to move

DFLers began passing their final conference committee reports on Wednesday evening, and Murphy said the final budget bills — including major ones like E-12 Education and Health and Human Services — would start rolling out on Thursday for votes in the coming days.

Senate Republicans, who held a press conference Thursday afternoon to criticize Democrats for not bringing their finished budget bills forward sooner, said the public likely won’t have enough time to weigh in on the complicated bills as DFLers scramble to wrap up their work.

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Hann called out the Democrats in control of state government for an “appalling lack of leadership.”

“They have clearly not been able to get their work done in time enough to get the hearings and the budgets passed in a timely fashion,” he said. “That is the problem.”

Even as DFLers and Republicans fight over progress on the state budget, House and Senate Democrats are at odds over the proposed minimum wage hike.

The House supports a much larger minimum-wage increase — from $6.15 in current law to $9.50 an hour — while the Senate is pushing for $7.75 an hour.

Bakk, the Senate majority leader, told reporters Thursday morning that the House and the Senate were “struggling” to find an agreement. Bakk said he doesn’t have the votes in the Senate to pass a number close to what the House wants in terms of the wage hike.

“The Senate just doesn’t have votes to go that high,” he said, pushing for the House to adopt the Senate’s position. “There are not the votes in the state Senate to pass a $9.50 minimum wage. If I brought it up, it would fail.”

Gamesmanship?

DFL Rep. Ryan Winkler, the chief House author of the measure, wasn’t impressed with Bakk’s assessment. He said House members have already compromised by reducing the proposed wage hike and said once the Senate gets close to the House position, they’ll have a bill.

Winkler said the move could simply be a tactic from Bakk to get what he wants.

“People play games at the end of session, so I’m not assuming this is on the merits,” Winkler said. “It could easily be another game.”

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If lawmakers can’t come to an agreement this year, the conference committee would remain open and lawmakers could address the issue next year.

But key stakeholders, such as the Minnesota AFL-CIO, are pushing for a resolution this year.

Labor President Shar Knutson said in a statement that a session that ends without a minimum-wage hike “will be extremely disappointing to hundreds of thousands of low-wage workers.”

“Frankly, it’s surprising that an issue so popular with Minnesotans has essentially stalled this session,” Knutson added.

The squabbling and end-of-session rush is also a far cry from the image DFL lawmakers attempted to project shortly after last fall’s elections catapulted them into complete control of Minnesota’s government.

They jokingly promised that there wouldn’t be a government shutdown like the historic disagreement in 2011. But now some lawmakers are whispering about the need for a special legislative session — all speculation — but still a vast departure from the unified front that Democrats brought into their first session in complete control in 20 years.

But Murphy said she expected the session to end this way because Democrats — like all Minnesotans — often have different views on major issues facing the state.

“Even though there are Democrats in charge of the House and the Senate and a Democratic governor, we still have different points of view on issues, and we need to iron those out,” she said. “There is contention and some conflict, but there’s also agreement on the priorities.”

There’s also the risk that DFLers could disappoint such crucial supporters as labor unions that have been pushing for the wage hike and unionization efforts.

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But many Capitol watchers have also noted that no issue is truly dead until the Legislature adjourns for the year.

“I wouldn’t characterize to anybody that it’s dead,” Bakk said of the minimum-wage increase. “There’s an open conference committee. It’s something the speaker and the governor and I talked about this morning, and it’s Thursday, so I wouldn’t rule anything out.”