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How we got here: As the Legislature heads into special session, a look at what will (and won’t) get done

This year, legislative leaders promised to do things differently. And they did, in that the 2019 session was marked by new and different ways of making decisions behind closed doors.

According to the proclamation signed Thursday night by Gov. Tim Walz, the special session will begin at 10 a.m. Friday.
According to the proclamation signed Thursday night by Gov. Tim Walz, the special session will begin at 10 a.m. Friday.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

Call it the Politics of Oy.

From “Cones of Silence” to closed-door “Leader Court” to “early wins” becoming late-stage “huhs?”, the closing days of the regular session of the Minnesota Legislature — and the odd pre-special session gap — had much to cause dismay.

Gov. Tim Walz
Gov. Tim Walz
Promises of doing things differently were kept — at least in that the 2019 session was marked by different ways of making decisions behind closed doors. Another difference? This year, those doing the negotiating said they were sorry about it. 

According to the proclamation signed Thursday night by Gov. Tim Walz, the special session will begin at 10 a.m. Friday. By agreement of “leadership,” it will finish by 7 a.m. Saturday. Walz, the former assistant football coach, used a track analogy to praise himself and legislative leaders.“I am proud that we came together across party lines to build a budget that will improve the lives of Minnesotans,” he said in a press release. “Now it’s our responsibility to take that budget across the finish line.”

That same agreement says no amendments will be supported by House Speaker Melissa Hortman and Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka. But they are also the only signatories to the deal. House Republicans and Senate DFLers are not bound by the agreement, and their leaders didn’t sign it. Even so, the proclamation ends a week of strange uncertainty about when the special session would begin, what could be done, and how long it would last.

What survived?

Sunday night seems long ago. That was when Walz, Hortman and Senate Majority Gazelka  emerged from negotiations to announce a deal. When they finally confronted the news media, it was smiles and handshakes all around. They said they had what they termed a “global” deal on the 2019-21 Minnesota state budget. And: Sorry for the all the secrecy, the trio said; they had needed the freedom to float trial balloons without actually releasing them skyward. They even thanked the outside world for patience.

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From then on out, the Big Three proclaimed, regular public processes would govern: conference committee meetings would be held with chairs and members working out the details as long as they met the dollar amounts handed down from the triumvirate of deciders.

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka
But in less than a day, that changed. Instead, the chairs of the nine budget conference committees that hadn’t met the regular session deadline were summoned to present their positions to Walz, Hortman and Gazelka and lay out the sticking points.

A few chairs said the three bosses were just there to talk it out, yet within a day documents began emerging called “leadership decisions” that made the call on thorny issues in each budget. Not just the top-line budget amounts for each of the committees or even big-deal issues like the provider tax (yes) and gas tax (no), but in-the-weeds agreements that had escaped the committee chairs.

All decisions were documented and initialed by Walz, Hortman and Gazelka. But save a Tuesday appearance in the Capitol press corps hallway by Walz and Gazelka, the decision-makers themselves have been scarce. Gazelka did make this dizzying video proclaiming the session a success, however. And Hortman chatted briefly after a Thursday evening meeting of her DFL caucus. “We have a great budget deal,” she said. “I assume we will all be awake for 24 hours and get it done.”

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And because the budget bills weren’t rushed to meet the Monday adjournment, members will have more time to see the bills, she said. Errors that in past years weren’t caught have been corrected this week. “If you compare the amount of time that people will have access to the bills this year compared to the amount of hours they had to review bills in prior years, it is literally night and day,” Hortman said. “But no matter when we pass them, they will be bills people have seen before and know what is inside of them.” 

The entities previously known as conference committees — panels with equal numbers from the House and Senate, all but one of which includes both DFLers and GOPers from each chamber — disappeared with the adjournment of the regular session Monday night. After some scrambling, the leadership decided that the standing committees of the House and Senate would hold public run-throughs of the different budget bill details. Some allowed lobbyists and the public to comment.

Nine different bills, running in the hundreds of pages, make for lengthy reading, though. And summaries by staff seems to show that many DFL policy initiatives did not survive. Capping prison probation at five years; giving felons voting rights upon release from prison rather than on completion of parole; gun safety measures; a ban on conversion therapy for LGBTQ youth; paid family leave; a public option for health insurance; drivers license for undocumented immigrants; a statewide under-21 smoking ban; a state Equal Rights Amendment. All failed for this year.

Republicans had losses to lament, too: a 20-week abortion ban; pre-emption of local government wage and hour laws; a tax credit for donations to private school scholarships. All went nowhere.

The “Leader Court” in a closed-door session on Thursday.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
The “Leader Court” in a closed-door session on Thursday.
The 10 budget bills do contain a boost for local government aid and that county and municipal governments from around the state have been pushing for. There’s also an increase in prison staffing; a renewed prison ombudsman program; money to promote participation in the Census; a middle-tax income tax cut; and a boost to the working family tax credit.

But these things exist in a sort of legislative limbo, at least for the time being. That’s because they aren’t yet bills — those come only when a session is convened. Instead, they are promises, pledges that once bills can be introduced, they will be included with agreed-upon language and financial spreadsheets.

What could possibly go wrong? 

But when would the promised session to begin? On Sunday, it was thought that Thursday would be the day. As Thursday approached with deals and details still in limbo, it became Friday. On Thursday, it became next week — before it suddenly became Friday again.

There was more to the dilemma than simply preparing the bills for adoption. Special sessions give the minority caucuses of the House and Senate something the voters did not: political power. That’s because it takes a super-majority vote to pass bills that allow the state to borrow money, and the global deal struck Sunday included a $500 million sale of bonds for projects around the state.

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Legislative rules also require bills to be read on the House and Senate floors three different times — readings that can’t occur on the same day, according to the rule. To do it all in less than three days takes a suspension of the rules — which also requires a supermajority.

House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, the Crown Republican who a year ago was Speaker of the House, hasn’t been invited to budget talks, and he doesn’t like the deal — especially the extension of the medical provider tax for health care programs and subsidized insurance. He has said he is unlikely to offer GOP votes for rules suspensions and the bonding bill unless his caucus gets some say in the details.

“The Governor is apparently expecting legislators to vote on thousands of pages of bills that legislators haven’t had time to read,” Daudt said in a statement issued after Walz’s official call for the session: “One of the bills doesn’t even exist yet. At this time, there are no agreements in place with the House Republican caucus regarding tomorrow’s special session.”

House Speaker Melissa Hortman
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
House Speaker Melissa Hortman
The one bill not yet available is the bonding bill that would spend $500 million on construction projects.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, was majority leader in 2016 but lost that job to Gazelka when Republicans took control of the body. He has said he thinks it is a bad idea to rush a session and that staff and lawmakers should be given time to understand what is in bills before they are voted on.

If a session needed three days, wouldn’t it be better to start after the Memorial Day weekend than work over the Memorial Day weekend, Bakk asked?

Walz met with the pair of suddenly influential lawmakers Wednesday to see what their levels of cooperation would be, and decided that it was worth the risk to convene the Legislature on Friday. Once he signed that proclamation Thursday, Walz’s ability to get concessions and cooperation ends. That’s because only the House and Senate can end a special session, not the governor.

Hortman said she had dinner with Daudt Wednesday to talk about the special session. No agreements were reached. “The majority decides when things start. The minority decides when things end,” she said.

As to the idea of taking the weekend off, Hortman said she hoped a 20-hour push Friday and Saturday would be enough, “We all have a constitutional obligation to fund the state government. While there are things in our life that are important, like family, it is a duty that we voluntarily sought in running for office … and it is part of the job.”

Errors and omissions

During the week post-adjournment, it was thought that the battle was over items the GOP Senate and the DFL House disagreed upon. Gun safety measures, for example, were unlikely to make the final cut because the Senate opposed them. An effort to tackle wage theft, however, was likely to survive because it had passed both houses in one form or another. (It did.)

But then you had issues such as emergency insulin for diabetics who couldn’t afford the medicine. A measure addressing the issue had passed both the House and Senate — overwhelmingly — with slightly different language. And yet, it was left out of the health and human services omnibus bills, with House DFLers saying the Senate wouldn’t agree to include it in the bill. For their part, the Senate GOP said the House hadn’t included it in its request list, though the House DFL said it was discussed on several occasions.

In any case, it wasn’t included in the bill, nor was the fees on insulin makers to pay for the program. All of which will test the understanding among legislative leaders that the bills that emerged from bargaining are locked in, with no changes allowed. Hortman said the emergency insulin proposal will not be offered as an amendment.

Finally, there was the issue that came to define the 2019 session: whether and when to accept $6.6 million in federal funds to beef up election cyber security. It had once been cited as a possible “early win” because both houses and both parties agreed it was needed. And yet it became an odd point of contention with the Senate GOP, which pledged that it would be cleared but that there was a need for due diligence to determine how the secretary of state would spend the money. The funds are in the final state government omnibus bill with no different provisions than were available to the GOP in January.