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2020 session preview: Will the Minnesota Legislature get anything done this year?

With the House and Senate still split between the DFL and the GOP and a critical election on the horizon in November, the session could end with few accomplishments.

Capitol staffers preparing the Minnesota Senate chambers on Monday.
Capitol staffers preparing the Minnesota Senate chambers on Monday.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

If you have a legislative session with nothing on the must-do list, how do you know when you’re finished?

The 2020 Minnesota Legislature is going to find out. With balanced budget in hand, with no crises to respond to, lawmakers have lots of things they would like to do on their agendas but very little that has to get done. And with the House and Senate still split between the DFL and the GOP and a critical election on the horizon in November, the session that convenes Tuesday could end with meager accomplishments.

“Really, there are no must-dos,” House Speaker Melissa Hortman said of the two-year Legislature. “The state continues to function. There is no government shutdown threatened if the Legislature doesn’t get any bills to the governor’s desk.”

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka echoed that basic concept. “This is not a budget year, so we really don’t need a supplemental spending bill,” the Nisswa-area Republican said.

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Under the Minnesota Constitution, the Legislature has to adjourn by May 19, though nothing prevents lawmakers from doing so earlier. That probably won’t happen, however, as schedules and cutoffs are all in place to take advantage of every minute of the allotted time, whether lawmakers need it or not.

Given that even-year meetings of the Legislature are often called bonding sessions — named after the tradition of passing bills financing state and local construction projects that traditionally get passed during those sessions — both leaders say they’d like to get a bonding bill done, even if failure to do so wouldn’t put the state into constitutional crisis.

House Speaker Melissa Hortman
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
House Speaker Melissa Hortman
But state and local governments shouldn’t yet anticipate having their construction dreams met in full. There is a significant difference between the $2.6 billion bonding proposal of Gov. Tim Walz and the $1 billion range that Gazelka has said he would be more comfortable with. The difference translates into dozens and dozens of state and local projects.

“There is good dialogue between the governor, myself and the speaker,” Gazelka said. “We’ll make sure that some of the key things get done this year.”

Walz’s top goal of the session is to persuade the House and Senate to vote for something closer to his $2.6 billion plan. “I hope the Legislature does their work,” he said. “Hold hearings. Bring in the mayors. Talk to people about what these projects are. Don’t come with an ideologically rigid place that does not match up with the facts. That is not the place where Minnesotans and their elected leaders are.”

It’s not about too much or too little,” Walz said of his proposal. “It’s the right amount and what you get for it. It’s about the projects that are in this bill, not the overall number.” 

Because most of the borrowing requires 60 percent votes of both houses, the minority parties in each have power that is denied them on most other issues. Last May, it was the reluctance of House Republicans to go along that blocked a smaller bonding bill during the one-day special session. So making sure all parts of the state see something in a bonding bill is important, not only for Walz’s ability to tout his “One Minnesota” theme, but also to gather the votes needed to win passage. 

What to do with the surplus? 

The surplus could be another area where the House and Senate have a lot of ideas, even if they don’t have the same ideas. 

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The House DFL has decided to push for increasing support for child care grants and early childhood education. But because there is little appetite for changing the two-year operating budget adopted last May, Hortman has proposed one-time grants that wouldn’t be embedded in the budget and wouldn’t be assured of on-going funding. 

“You’re only 3 once,” she has been saying in reference to the idea that even if the grants don’t continue, the 3-year-olds who enrolled in the program will carry the benefits through their lives.

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka
MinnPost file photo by Briana Bierschbach
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka
For its part, the Senate GOP would like to consider tax cuts. Last year, both parties agreed on a lower-income tax-rate cut. This year, Gazelka would like to completely eliminate an income tax on Social Security benefits. The state does exempt some retirement income for lower-income taxpayers but not all.

Senate DFLers also want to send additional money to school districts for the hiring of more counselors, and both House and Senate DFLers may propose one-time grants to public housing authorities to retrofit high-rise buildings with sprinklers. That is in response to the Nov. 25 fire that killed five residents of the Cedar High Apartments in Minneapolis.

Walz has been cautious about spending the surplus, and said he will propose a small supplemental budget that makes changes to the two-year plan adopted after contentious negotiations last spring. He has endorsed allocating additional money to build out rural broadband connections under a state program to subsidize private cable providers who have found it uneconomical to make the last-mile connections in sparsely populated areas of the state.

Can they agree on anything else?

Hortman refers to the 2020 session as “Chapter 2,” a continuation of the story that began one year ago. But among the themes established in that chapter was a DFL House and a GOP Senate passing bills that had little chance of getting through the other chamber.

Yet there were some areas of agreement in 2019, the most significant being the two-year, $48.3 billion budget deal. Legislative leaders also agreed on a plan to fix the state vehicle licensing system; new regulations on pharmacy benefit managers; a tax on opioid makers to help pay for the addiction crisis; and a requirement for hands-free cellphone use in cars.

There might be similar areas of agreement this session. Both parties have plans to address increased crime on Twin Cities transit buses and trains. The approaches are different, however, with DFLers emphasizing using transit ambassadors to connect riders with social services and de-escalate conflicts while the GOP is looking at a more law enforcement-focused response. Compromise is possible, however, and the Met Council is eager to get help to respond to the problem.

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Also possible: a plan to help diabetics who can’t afford insulin, though a deal has so far confounded advocates, the governor and a bipartisan work group, with each now accusing others of preventing an agreement. If public statements of desire are to be believed, however, a plan could be reached.

Both parties also have clean energy agendas, but they look so different from each other that compromise is less likely than it might appear.

Gov. Tim Walz
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Gov. Tim Walz
And there is some agreement on how to respond to management and spending oversight at the state Department of Human Services. The agency, the state’s largest, has had three leaders in one year, while a series of overpayments for opioid treatment to tribal governments and counties highlighted failures in its management systems.

Walz has said he is open to breaking the department into two agencies, something that has support among many in the Legislature. But a clearer consensus is emerging on ordering an outside audit of the agency to look at both its performance and finances. 

After House Deputy Minority Leader Anne Neu of North Branch said last week she didn’t want to make any decisions about the agency until they knew from the audit what the issues were, Hortman agreed. “This is apparently our Kumbaya moment of the gathering,” she said during a pre-session forum with Walz and legislative leaders, adding that rushing to break up DHS might simply allow the Legislature to look “busy” but might not be the best approach.  

File under ‘no chance’

Divided government means there must be bipartisan agreement for bills to pass. That knowledge hasn’t stopped both majorities from considering and passing bills that have no chance in the other chamber. 

One reason is because they set their own agendas, based on their own politics and ideologies, and want to express them in legislation. The other reason is each has constituent groups that expect to see their issues advance. The House DFL majority calls its agenda “2020 Minnesota Values Plan”; the Senate GOP went with “Vision 2020.”

As part of their plan, DFLers will push again for two gun safety bills. One would require criminal background checks for more gun purchases. The other would set up a system for law enforcement to seek a court order to remove guns from those deemed a danger to others or themselves. The Senate GOP majority opposes both bills, and there are DFLers who aren’t keen on taking votes on those measures either.

For the GOP, Gazelka recently posted a Facebook video calling for passage of a law to require photo identification by voters, and has raised concerns over voter fraud that have become national GOP issues. State voters rejected such a program in a public vote eight years ago, causing DFL Rep. John Lesch to Tweet: “2012 called. They want their issues back.”

DFLers are also supporting a bill being pushed by Secretary of State Steve Simon to amend the new presidential primary to restrict how political parties use voter data collected by county elections officials. Senate GOP leaders have said they don’t want to change rules in the midst of the election.

House DFL leadership also is pushing a recreational marijuana bill, though it has stopped short of committing to a floor vote on the issue this session. Again, the Senate GOP isn’t interested. The same may be true of another run by the House DFL at a paid family leave program that would assess employers and employees to provide for some income while parents take leave for newborns or to care for family members.

And Gazelka wants to push again for tax credits for donations to opportunity scholarships to private K-12 schools. Walz and House DFLers are not in support of the measure. Gazelka’s caucus also will have bills to allow importation of prescription drugs from Canada. 

Operating with any eye toward the 2020 election

How do you separate the 2020 session from the 2020 election? 

You can’t. So perhaps it’s better to view every act and statement and vote as being done with a view toward the November general election, or — in the case of DFLers getting challenged from their left — with a view toward the August state primary. 

Both the DFL and the GOP preface nearly everything they propose as being in step with the real people of the state — and the other side being out of step. As in: Look what we could pass if we controlled the entire Legislature — and look what we prevented from happening by controlling at least one chamber.

“Our ideologies are so different that we’ll be beating the crap out of them — on health care, on issues like prioritizing health insurance profits and (putting) pharmaceutical company profits over the health of Minnesotan,” said Hortman. “And they’ll be beating the crap out of us — about thinking that our proposals are unrealistically expensive to provide health care to more Minnesotans.

“It doesn’t hurt either one of our arguments going into the next election to actually get something done on insulin. We can have compromises and productive agreements and we’ll have plenty to disagree about in the next election.”

Gazelka has to hold the Senate in 2020 as a stopgap to DFLers gaining complete control of the Legislature — and the 2021 redistricting process. While the GOP has a few vulnerable state senators in the Twin Cities suburbs, the path to keeping control of the chamber might run through Greater Minnesota, especially the Iron Range.

Shortly after Sen. Susan Kent of Woodbury toppled longtime Senate DFL leader Tom Bakk, of Cook, in a leadership fight earlier this month, Gazelka pounced in a Facebook video. “I’ve got your back up on the Range, Republicans have your back up on the Range,” he said. “The things that you hold dear on the Range are not held dear by the Democrats who are in control in the Twin Cities.”

Hortman said she wanted to “put the kibosh” on the notion that only Greater Minnesota legislators can work for Greater Minnesota issues. “Although we do have great legislators from Greater Minnesota … we all are committed to all Minnesotans,” she said. 

To demonstrate that, Hortman reminded reporters that though she represents a Minneapolis suburb, she was named the Minnesota Milk Producers’ legislator of the year.