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Why can’t Minnesota’s legislative leaders compromise? Because their disagreement isn’t (only) about money. It’s about a philosophy of governing

Meeting in the middle can sometimes resolve policy differences. But it’s rarely helpful in resolving philosophical ones. 

Gov. Tim Walz
Gov. Tim Walz: "We set our budgeting targets on what Minnesotans needed."
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

Is it really any wonder that they’re so far apart?

On Monday, during a break in closed-door budget talks that were on the cusp of failing to meet a self-imposed deadline, Gov. Tim Walz and Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka spoke separately to the media. But their assessment of the differences between their budgeting approaches were basically the same.

The DFL starts with how much money is needed to solve challenges facing the state, both men explained, while the GOP starts with how much money the state will collect. “We set our budgeting targets on what Minnesotans needed,” Walz said, “What would it take to make sure that the special ed cross subsidy doesn’t drain off from our schools, what would it take to keep the 4,000 pre-k slots?”

In contrast, the GOP was “going about it the wrong way,” Walz argued: “I know they set their numbers by just coming up with zero revenue, and then everything went from there.” 

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Gazelka couldn’t have agreed more with that assessment. “They basically build a budget from the bottom up,” the Nisswa Republican said of Walz and House DFL budget writers. “In other words, whatever each area wants for spending that they think is important, they build into the budget. And then after that they raise whatever taxes are necessary to get there.

“We build a budget with the resources that we have. … We take that number and we work down and prioritize about what is most important for Minnesota and what is it we don’t need to do or can do differently. They’re two different directions. I wish we could be on the same page with that but we’re not.”

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka: "Serious negotiations can continue when St. Paul Democrats realize we can’t keep taxing people out of independence and prosperity by promising them a public program to help them instead."
All of which means 2019 session of the Minnesota Legislature doesn’t just reflect a difference on issues. It reflects a difference on a philosophy of governing. The DFL thinks the state hasn’t spent enough on schools, on health care, on the social safety net and on transportation. The GOP thinks the state taxes too much, and that it needs to not add to that burden.

And while compromise and meeting-in-the-middle can sometimes resolve policy differences, it’s rarely helpful in resolving philosophical ones. 

Frustration all around

The self-imposed deadline Walz, Gazelka and House Speaker Melissa Hortman had come up with months ago was a tactic to force the Legislature to finish on time. Missing it doesn’t mean they won’t be able to complete a two-year budget for the constitutionally mandated last day of session, May 20. But it is hard for the 10 budget conference committees to do much serious negotiating if the chairs don’t know how much money they will be allowed to spend.

Now, with the Monday deadline blown, and after a relatively brief meeting Tuesday afternoon, the governor and the two leaders aren’t set to meet again until Sunday night — after the Saturday fishing opener and after Mother’s Day brunches.

All that was left, then, was to cast blame.

Walz and House Speaker Melissa Hortman expressed frustration that after they offered to reduce their proposed spending (and, in turn, their proposed revenue increases), the Senate GOP did not counter with an offer to increase their proposed spending. Going into these talks, the House DFL proposed spending $49.8 billion, Walz $49.35 billion and Senate Republicans $47.7 billion. All the proposals exceed the current two-year budget of $45.5 billion.

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Walz and Hortman agreed to reduce their proposed spending total to around $49.15 billion, a $200 million reduction from the governor’s plan and $640 million from the House plan. Which areas of the budget would have less spending — and which of the proposed tax hikes would be lessened — was to be determined later.

Gazelka’s counter-offer was to search for an additional $200 million in the health and human services budget and devote that money to the education budget. He termed them savings from reductions in waste; DFLers called them additional service cuts to an HHS budget they already considered “draconian.”

Gazelka said he wants the DFL to reduce their tax plans. “I am disappointed Gov. Walz and Speaker Hortman have so far refused to drop even one cent of their massive four-year $12 billion tax increase agenda,” he said “They also refuse to offer any specific spending reductions to a budget that spends more than $50 billion a year when you consider all funds.

“Serious negotiations can continue when St. Paul Democrats realize we can’t keep taxing people out of independence and prosperity by promising them a public program to help them instead.”

House Speaker Melissa Hortman
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
House Speaker Melissa Hortman: "We put a substantial move on the table and the Senate put nothing on the table."
When she was told that Gazelka had said she and Walz hadn’t offered to reduce their tax plan, Hortman wasn’t pleased. In fact, she called the suggestion “bullshit.”

“They are not that bad at math: $200 million is not zero, $664 million is not zero,” she said, “We put a substantial move on the table and the Senate put nothing on the table.”

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From Gazelka’s perspective, coming up at all on revenue would require accepting the idea of the DFL tax increases. And no new taxes is the centerpiece of the GOP budget agenda this session. “I’m saying let’s make sure we take care of the fundamentals,” he said Tuesday, repeating that the Senate budget represents a 5 percent increase over current spending levels. “Don’t miss the things that we must get done, that all of Minnesota think we need to get done. Let’s make sure we get those in this short period of time that we have left and then what other things we can agree to we’ll do as well.

What now?

All this doesn’t even touch upon transportation funding. Walz has proposed raising the gasoline tax by five-cents a year for four years, while Gazelka has promised to reject any gas tax increase.

So what now? The session ends May 20 whether there is a budget or not. If not, Walz can call a special session, but his predecessors have insisted on deals being struck before they agree to holding a session.

And though Walz and the top legislative leaders have been talking about comity and civility and optimism, House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler voiced some pessimism Tuesday based on the parties’ philosophical differences. “The Republican leadership has reiterated their desire for a zero-budget change and a lights-on proposal for funding state government,” the Golden Valley lawmaker said. “We know Minnesota needs a lot more than the status quo.

“If they can’t compromise at all, it is not clear how we end this session,” Winkler said.

Walz’s budget chief Myron Frans had been encouraged earlier in the session when the governor, Hortman and Gazelka agreed to deadlines that would see budget bills drafted and budget targets agreed to with two weeks to go in session. That, he said at the time, was unprecedented. With the Monday deadline missed, what does he think now?

“We have bills, we have a spreadsheet,” Frans said. “In years past we were in the final weekend with no bill language and no spreadsheets, so this is a good situation.”

And he agreed that people tend not to react to artificial deadlines the same way they react to real ones. “But next week we will be coming up on a real deadline,” he said.