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Special session adjourns after Minnesota Legislature passes $48.3 billion budget

There will be no general tax increase, and no gas tax hike. But there will be a cut in the income tax rate for middle-income earners while a tax on medical providers will continue. 

photo of minnesota house chambers from above
One by one, Daudt and House GOP members agreed to let budget bills move toward debate and passage. Some gave speeches against them, some voted against them, but they all passed.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

One last day of speeches, one last day of votes, one last day of posturing and politics and even a bit of cynicism, and the 2019 session of the Minnesota Legislature was finished and adjourned in a day.

It was just shy of 7 a.m. when the two chambers finished their work, meeting their goal of getting the bill-passing done in a single day, after spending a week working final deals and negotiating details.

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The budget will spend $48.3 billion over the next two years, up from the current biennium’s $45.5 billion budget. There will be no general tax increase but there will be a cut in the income tax rate that applies to middle-income earners as well as an enhanced working family tax credit. There will not be a gas tax hike, which had come off the table last week during closed-door talks between DFL Gov. Tim Walz, DFL House Speaker Melissa Hortman and GOP Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka.

There will be a continuation of a tax on medical providers that was to expire at years end. That concession by Gazelka was the key to closing the wide gap between the DFL and GOP, and one that allowed the session to end peacefully and more-or-less on time. No lengthy special session was needed. No government shutdown will be triggered.

“This budget will improve the lives of Minnesotans in every corner of the state and I look forward to signing it into law in the coming days,” said Gov. Tim Walz in a statement just after adjournment. “We set out to make investments in education, health care, and community prosperity and that’s exactly what we achieved. Minnesota is showing the rest of the nation that Republicans and Democrats can still find compromise and work together to get things done.”

Threat of longer session

The special session lasted just one day. But for much of that day, there was worry that it would take much longer than that. The plan was to pass nine budget bills plus a measure to sell $500 million in bonds for construction projects in a 21-hour window, part of a deal worked out between the governor and the House and Senate majority leaders. But suspending the rules to make that happen requires a supermajority in both chambers, and whether the suddenly empowered minority caucuses — the GOP in the House, DFL in the Senate — would let it happen was in doubt until the sun went down.

Earlier Friday, GOP House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt strongly suggested that he would exercise the power given him in the state constitution to block the supermajority votes needed to pass bills on the same day they are introduced. The DFL caucus that controls the House has 74 votes: plenty to pass bills but not near the 90 needed to suspend the rules.

Daudt, from Crown, was indignant that his Republican caucus hadn’t been included in the bargaining on the budget bills and yet now was being asked to help pass those same bills.  “We think it’s reasonable that we get to read the bills, that we get to understand the bills, to know what’s in them,” Daudt said. “It will be difficult for us to say we’re gonna take up and pass bills in the 24-hour period that we haven’t even seen yet.”

He even said he told Walz Wednesday that it would be “unfair” to be asked to suspend the rules.  “The process will work just like it has for 150 years in the state of Minnesota,” he said. “Bills get introduced today, they get referred to committees, we’ll have hearings on the bills. We want a transparent process.”

His prediction for the length of the session? Three days … at least.

Hortman didn’t seem worried. “The end of session is always a pretty crazy, frantic time with a lot of work getting done,” she said.

The House could stay in St. Paul for one day or three days. And while the latter would mean forgoing the Memorial Day Weekend, she said she would prefer that to breaking the momentum built since she, Walz and Gazelka announced their deal last Sunday.

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“The special session could be three days long to accommodate the minority if they choose not to suspend the rules,” she said, adding that it is a “typical courtesy of the minority” to vote to suspend the rules in a special session.

Earlier, in talking about the threat of members in the minority attaching amendments and engaging in long debates on budget bills, Hortman said the process was like putting pajamas on the toddler: “We can do it the hard way or the easy way. But either way, the pajamas are getting on.”

Staying through the weekend was also an implied threat to legislators, many of whom would prefer to go home than force extra session days when the likelihood was that the underlying bills and budgets wouldn’t change.

photo of hortman and daudt at rostrum
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
House Speaker Melissa Horman conferred with Minority Leader Kurt Daudt during the special session.
Standing in between Daudt and Hortman was Gazelka, who is part of the bipartisan trio that crafted the overall deal last week, but is also a Republican like Daudt. “Rep. Daudt and I have talked but they are a separate body with separate demands and I’m not privy to all of those,” Gazelka said. “He’s trying to work out the best situation for his caucus. That’s his deal.

“In divided government, you end up with something that I call the draw,” Gazelka said. “Everybody recognizes that if we don’t get this done it wouldn’t look much different in June or July.”

Gazelka, from Nisswa, said that the House members all have their own “election certificates,” capitol parlance meaning they got elected and get to make their own decisions.

But he made it clear he wanted Daudt to deal. “I’m not gonna be a happy camper if we’re all here Sunday,” Gazelka said.

Gazelka had less trouble with Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, a DFLer from Cook who, while he preferred to come back next week to finish the work of the session, went along with the one-day strategy.

Amendments and pledges

By early evening, after the House and Senate had held informational hearings on the last, biggest (it’s 650 pages) and most-complex piece of the budget  — for health and human services — the fear of a three-day-or-longer session subsided. One by one, Daudt and House GOP members agreed to let budget bills move toward debate and passage. Some gave speeches against them, some voted against them, but they all passed.

And Daudt’s threat disappeared. “The minority parties realize there’s no appetite for making substantial changes and so having the process drag out longer doesn’t really serve any purpose,” said House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, in reference to both the House Republicans Caucus and the four-member New Republican Caucus.

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So what did Daudt get? Though any amendments were deemed to violate the deals made with the Senate and Walz, House DFL leaders did not oppose Republicans offering a batch of amendments, provisions that could well show up in campaign materials next year. Offered and defeated were amendments to criminalize knowingly allowing female genital mutilation a child; to add a judgeship to west central Minnesota; to stiffen penalties for damage to pipelines by protestors; and to give a property tax break for farmers forced to set aside land for stream buffers. There is also a pledge to review House rules for how budget committees were created as subdivisions of the Ways and Means Committee.

Another threat to the overall deal struck by Hortman, Walz and Gazelka came when Senate DFLers tried to put the Alec Smith Emergency Insulin Act into the health and human services budget bill. That language — to tax insulin makers to fund a program in which diabetics could get insulin in an emergency — had been approved by both houses earlier in the session. DFLers said the GOP Senate blocked it from the budget while Senate GOP conferees blamed the House for not offering the language. After a long debate, the amendment failed 33-34. Gazelka pledged to work on the issue in the interim.

The same amendment was offered in the House but was opposed by DFL leaders — not because they didn’t favor it, but because it would have unhinged the deal that brought the Legislature to completion.