In the weeks since adjournment of the 2019 Minnesota Legislature May 25, there has been plenty of speculation about what made it relatively successful.
Was it the personal relationships built by Gov. Tim Walz, House Speaker Melissa Hortman and Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka? Was it the experience in they gained mid-session by agreeing to abandon the MNLARS licensing software and replace it? Was it Gazelka’s late decision to give up his caucus’ opposition to extending the medical provider tax?
But in an interview last week, Hortman gave another reason, one that was decided before the session started. She and Gazelka decided to wait until 2020 to begin waging the 2020 election.
“He and I talked about this after the election, that there are factors outside of our control that will determine the fate of each of our caucuses in the next election,” said Hortman, a DFLer from Brooklyn Park. “And what we said to each other then, being the sort of practical people that we both are, is given that Donald Trump is going to have a major impact on what happens to us in 2020, how about we try to govern together well in 2019.”
Hortman said both leaders recognized that by the time votes are cast, the doings of the 2019 session are not going to be “super top of mind.”
“So let’s try to, the best we can, do good work together, make sure you’ve got wins and I’ve got wins and we can, you know, get a good budget together,” she said. “And then let’s, let’s go ahead and declare ideological war in the fall of 2020. Because there’s plenty to disagree about, right? There’s plenty of things where our parties are so different. There are big differences for us to talk about. We didn’t really need to try to score points in the 2019 session.”
The notion that lawmakers put 2020 off until 2020 wasn’t always apparent during the nearly five month session. The House DFL caucus started the year with a very aggressive policy agenda, one that included a new paid family and medical leave program modeled after unemployment insurance; two gun-safety measures (to expand background checks for gun purchases and to create a court-supervised red-flag warning system for potentially dangerous gun owners); drivers licenses for undocumented immigrants; regulation of prescription drug prices; and a public option to let more people buy health insurance through the state’s system for the working poor.
None of the bills addressing those issues became law. All were blocked by the Republican-controlled Senate. None of which was a surprise.
So Hortman began her post-session post-mortem with a different scorecard, one that goes back to the unfinished business of the 2018 session. “Republicans couldn’t get distracted driving, the opioid epidemic, elder care addressed in their leadership,” she said. “(And) tax conformity. It was a combination of being beholden to industry and just not having the cojones to take the votes.”
Hortman said it was the DFL taking of the House at the 2018 election that cleared the way for all of those issues to pass in 2019. “Clearly if the House Republicans would have maintained control, we would not be doing anything about (opioids),” she said. “If we were, we’d be using general fund revenue, we wouldn’t be holding the pharmaceutical industry accountable.”
She said she put some of her top caucus members to work on those issues: Liz Olson of Duluth on responding to the opioid crisis and funding it; Jennifer Schultz of Duluth on elder care reforms; Frank Hornstein of Minneapolis on banning hand-held phones while driving; and Paul Marquart of Dilworth on aligning the state tax code with the 2017 federal tax law. “And really the leaders in these areas are the top notch, power legislators in our caucus.”
She also defended the broader agenda, even though none of it passed. “It is a very significant achievement to have moved all of that agenda through the committees and off of the House floor,” she said.
The difference between the agenda that succeeded and the one that failed was that the former was favored by the Republican-controlled Senate that didn’t change hands last November, due in part to the fact that only one Senate race was on the ballot. Recognizing the mutual veto power that the House DFL and the Senate GOP had over the other’s agenda was what made the session as successful as it was. The one successful DFL priority was a wage-theft enforcement program, which passed after Republican Sen. Eric Pratt of Prior Lake decided to push a version of St. Paul DFL Rep. Tim Mahoney’s bill.
While they didn’t pass much of it, Hortman said the House DFL’s agenda — what her caucus dubbed the Minnesota Values Project — was reflected in the final budget. That manifesto focused on preserving and expanding access to health care, boosting education and increasing living wage jobs.
“It is super similar to the governor’s One Minnesota thing,” she said. “Honestly, when he came out with One Minnesota, I thought he stole the MVP agenda. But this is what Minnesota has had been telling us.”
Red lines and special sessions
Hortman defended end-of-session secrecy as necessary for getting the final deals done. She claimed that she wanted to do more in public but that Gazelka, as the Senate leader, wouldn’t.
Yet while final budgets are often completed in closed-door talks, the 2019 added a new twist. After budget targets were agreed to — the dollar amounts that each of 10 budget areas could spend — the three leaders convened an ad hoc commission to push their committee chairs toward agreements. Of the dozens and dozens of items that are included in the omnibus budget bills, the trio decided what was in and what was out. As with the rest of the session, many items and issues were dropped because one of the three said no.
All three tried to refrain from drawing red lines, at least in public. But Hortman said there were, in fact, major issues that were must-haves. For Walz, it was preserving the medical provider tax in some form, since it provides revenue needed to maintain health insurance subsidies and other health care programs. Without the tax, the rest of the budget would have been affected due to the need to search for money for health services.
For Hortman, it was getting an increase in per student education funding to at least cover inflationary increases and then add to student programs. The funding included maintaining 4,000 pre-kindergarten slots and easing funding gaps in special education.
For Gazelka, it was to prevent an increase in the per-gallon gasoline tax, something Walz had pegged at 20 cents — a nickel per year over four years.
Had any of the three not gotten those elements in a final deal, Hortman said the Legislature would likely still be in session — or at least waiting for a special session to be called.
Even if Gazelka had insisted on simply extending the sunset for the provider tax rather than ending it, they would still be in session, she said. “I mean, there were certain no-goes, right,” she said. “Everybody has a red line in negotiations. I tried really hard not to make any of our red lines public so that we would have maximum room to maneuver. But the governor was not leaving here without a provider tax and I was not leaving here without adequate education funding.
“There are things that you go to the brink of shutdown. I think that for Gazelka, maybe it would have been the gas tax, you know, maybe if we would not have let go of the transportation package.”
The deal came together on May 21 at 2 p.m. The provider tax would be continued without a sunset but at a lower rate: 1.8 percent rather than 2 percent. “So no, it’s not a Cadillac but it’s like a nice reliable minivan,” Hortman said. “It’s still working. It’s still taking care of Minnesotans. It’s keeping us moving forward on healthcare and Minnesotan’s health care was at risk without continuing that.”
And she praised the budget, both the details and the process. “Having a budget that’s done more or less on time without a lot of drama is something that Minnesotans deserve,” she said. “Not partisan temper tantrums, not like coming to the brink of a shutdown or like, blocking out the governor from negotiations and taking the risks that the bills will get vetoed. Just good solid, responsible, good governance.”
What comes next?
Hortman put her strategy for winning passage of DFL priorities into two “buckets.” One is legislative: to convince Senate Republicans that they are better off going into the 2020 election having done something on gun safety and having negotiated a paid leave program — while they have a role in those negotiations rather than risk an all-DFL Legislature in 2021.
Hortman claims that at the end of the 2018 session, vulnerable suburban Republicans asked their leaders for some action on gun safety because they feared it would be a potent election issue. “And their caucus did nothing,” she said. “And we beat them and we beat them in large part through the efforts of moms … saying, we’re not going to take this gun violence in our communities anymore.”
The other 2020 priority is making it possible for those who suffer sexual harassment in the workplace to get their day in civil court by easing the legal standard for what constitutes actionable harassment.
If Senate Republicans don’t support some compromise legislation on those issues, the other option includes an election strategy: holding the House for the DFL and winning control of the Senate by campaigning on those same issues.
Yet Hortman acknowledges that her caucus’s success in last election — and its hopes for the next one — were in no small part due to factors outside her control, including national election swings and the popularity of Trump.
“When you look at the history of the Minnesota Legislature, the biggest factor determining the makeup of the Legislature, in the midterm years is it’s a referendum on the president,” she said, recalling the “slaughter” the DFL suffered in Barack Obama’s two mid-term elections.
“2018 was the Trump midterm, which was predictably bad for the president’s party,” she said.
But she also said a party needs to be prepared for the wave and that hard work can make the difference in especially close elections. That included healthy fundraising and get-out-the-vote efforts driven by volunteers.
Due to DFL turnout, at least nine GOP incumbents lost in 2018 with more votes than they had won with in 2014. “But nevertheless, you can’t turn an election year that doesn’t have any winds in your favor into a victory year no matter how well prepared you are,” Hortman said. “In 2010 we lost 25 seats. It was a massacre. Right? And there wasn’t anything I don’t think that we could have done to prevent it.”
That said, Hortman said this of her and Gazelka’s chances in 2020: “I’d rather have my hand than his right now.”