Minnesota lawmakers have until midnight on Monday to pass a two-year, $46-billion state budget. But the most common sight around the Minnesota Capitol over the weekend was legislators and onlookers lounging around the building waiting for news — any news.
Top leaders in the Republican-controlled Legislature spent Saturday and Sunday shuttling in and out of closed-door negotiations with DFL Gov. Mark Dayton and his staff, working piece-by-piece to craft a deal that could pass and get signed into law. Between meetings, they reported slow progress, yet by Sunday evening, several major budget areas were still left without a final deal, including education, transportation, state government, public safety and a health and human services budget that could possibly face cuts.
A package of tax cuts and construction projects, known as the bonding bill, were also in limbo as of late Sunday. Those bills don’t have to pass this session as part of a state budget, but they are top priorities for both Democrats and Republicans after the tax and bonding bills fell apart in the final hours of the 2016 session.
But time is running out. Legislators need to pass a budget by midnight, their constitutional deadline to adjourn. And some of the most complicated outstanding budget bills — health and human services and education — take the longest to process.
“We are up against a time clock,” said Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt, who was still optimistic they could get the budget done with a breakthrough soon. “Some of these bills take 12 or more hours for the folks just to draft the bills.”
That time crunch led Republicans to start moving budget bills late Friday without a final agreement with Dayton, but they continued to meet with the governor all weekend. The results of those closed-door negotiations started to trickle out to the public in smaller budget bills.
Lawmakers cast bipartisan votes for a state agricultural budget and a bill that funds hundreds of millions of dollars in projects through the state’s Legacy Amendment, both of which were sent to Dayton. Also awaiting the governor’s signature: an environmental budget bill that nixed a controversial provision to delay the deadline to implement natural buffers between farmland and public waterways by more than a year. Instead, the bill gave some farmers an additional eight months to comply.
The Legislature also passed a $210 million higher education budget that gives the Minnesota State system $106 million more over the next two years while blocking major tuition increases. The bill increases funding for the University of Minnesota by $54.6 million, an amount far less than what the university requested and is needed to keep tuition down, Democrats argued. Dayton originally wanted $318 million for higher education. Sen. Jason Isaacson, DFL-Shoreview, called the bill “punitive” to the university for disagreements between the institution and GOP lawmakers over fetal tissue research.
Meanwhile, lawmakers also worked late into Sunday evening to pass a bill funding jobs and economic development programs over the next two years.
Another chaotic finale?
Between votes, however, there was plenty of downtime. Rep. Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul, warned her constituents that her daughter was getting married the final weekend of session, taking her out of the mix for Friday and Saturday votes. “I got texts from my colleagues [Saturday] night that said ‘You’re missing absolutely nothing. Nothing’s happening here. Mazel tov. Have a good time,’” Murphy said. “It’s a relief that I didn’t miss an important vote or an important debate. … But it feels like there’s no sense of urgency and no tension around feeling like we need to get our work done.”
Murphy, who served as the House majority leader for two years, said it would be a “gargantuan” feat to ask staff to turn all the bills around by midnight, and she’s worried there will be errors drafted into rushed budget bills.
Only Dayton can call legislators back into a special session if they don’t finish everything on time. That could happen quickly if they have an agreement in hand. That’s what happened in 2010, when Gov. Tim Pawlenty immediately called lawmakers back after the legislative clock ran out to finish work on a budget bill. And there is an incentive for quick action: If a budget deal is not reached by June 30, the last day of the fiscal year, government heads into shutdown mode.
Dayton’s spokesperson Sam Fettig said the governor met with legislative leaders over the weekend and planned to continue meeting into Sunday evening, “to reach a compromise budget agreement that is acceptable to the governor and the Legislature.”
It was a familiar situation for many at the Capitol. The last two sessions ended in last-minute, late-night negotiations. When bills did show up, legislators said they felt rushed through final floor votes on large budget bills, some hundreds of pages long.
“Do you believe in good faith, can you tell the public and these elected senators that we are ready to vote on a bill that’s 145 pages long that has only be available for me to read for 30 minutes?” Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, said Sunday night as lawmakers debated the environmental budget bill.
Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, said many of the provisions in the bill had been previously heard in committees throughout session. “There’s been many hours of discussion that has gone into this bill,” he said, adding that this has happened before, no matter who’s in control of government. “Every biennium as you get to the end of the process it ends up in a hurry.”