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Minnesota’s 2021 Legislature starts today. Here are five factors that will dominate the session

The bad news: Minnesota lawmakers will once again be sequestered from the public unless they venture out beyond the chain-link fence that now surrounds the Capitol. The good news? Parking shouldn’t be a problem.

Only credentialed lawmakers, staff and news media can currently enter the Minnesota Capitol via adjacent buildings.
Only credentialed lawmakers, staff and news media can currently enter the Minnesota Capitol via adjacent buildings.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

There was a time when the first day of a Minnesota legislative session felt like a big deal: 201 fresh-scrubbed politicians at the Capitol with families and election certificates in tow, awaiting the swearing-in ceremony to make it all official; new staffers trying to find committee rooms and offices; regular citizens roaming through the corridors or demonstrating their concerns about one cause or another; lines to the Rathskeller cafeteria snaking out the door.

Tuesday will be nothing like that.

The swearing-in of members will be mostly remote but partly in person, properly distanced and lacking anything resembling pomp and ceremony. The House will follow the pattern it set during the summer and fall and convene via mostly remote floor sessions and committee meetings. The Senate will try to adopt a hybrid system, with committees featuring both in-person attendees and remote connections. Chain-link fences will keep out all but credentialed people. Many staff members will work from home. The cafeteria remains closed.

And because of the seven special sessions convened monthly since June, even the presence of what remains technically a part-time Legislature lacks its normal luster.

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Welcome to the highly irregular 2021 regular session of the Minnesota Legislature, with COVID-19 once again the central player. And for the second Legislature in a row, the Capitol is divided, with DFLers controlling the House and Republicans in charge of the Senate. 

That means passing a bill or a budget will require satisfying both parties — or at least not upsetting the political sensibilities of either. That cuts down on both the number of issues and the breadth of budget decisions that will be considered. In other words, keep your expectations low, leaders of all four major caucuses have told their members. 

Here, then, are some of the factors that will dominate the 92nd Minnesota Legislature:

Logistics

What is normally the concern of chief clerks, secretaries of the Senate and their respective sergeants at arms has become top of mind for everyone associated with the Legislature. When will the House and Senate meet? How will they meet? How many of the 201 lawmakers will be present at one time? How do residents of the state take part? How many times will someone use the term “the People’s House” sarcastically instead of reverentially?

House Speaker Melissa Hortman
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
House Speaker Melissa Hortman
“My focus as the chief executive officer of the House is pretty much on logistics and keeping everyone safe,” said House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park. “The substance is up to the members by the bills they put in the hopper.”

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said it has always been the job of leaders to manage the calendar, assuring that bills and budgets meet deadlines, making sure committees and floor sessions are as transparent as possible. Doing all that in a COVID world makes it more difficult.

“I don’t feel we did it as good as we wanted to” last year, he said. 

One response was to increase the number of committees and assign fewer members to each to permit more distancing in committee rooms for the members who choose to appear in person. His majority is a single vote: 34-33. But when two DFL members bolted to create an independent caucus that will likely support Gazelka on key votes, he gained a bit more breathing room.

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Overall, the bad news is that elected officials again will be sequestered from the public unless and until they venture out beyond the chain-link fence that surrounds the Capitol or welcome a constituent to an office meeting. Mostly, public access will be via Zoom meetings or via one-on-one teleconference klatches featuring bring-your-own coffee. 

The good news? Parking should not be a problem.

Emergency powers

Back in early March, COVID-19 was a still-vague threat, and the governor’s authority under emergency powers law was unclear. By late March, the pandemic had hit with force and Gov. Tim Walz determined that it was the type of natural disaster that necessitated his declaration of peacetime emergency. Few challenged his conclusion.

Ten months later, however, Republicans — and a few DFLers — think he has exceeded his authority. The state’s emergency powers law envisioned temporary events like floods, fires and invasion from Canada, they say, and once the immediate issues are dealt with, everything should return to normal order.

Gov. Tim Walz
REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
Gov. Tim Walz
But the emergency powers have been interpreted broadly, and Walz has used them to impose everything from stay-at-home orders, business closures and curfews to suspension of normal licensing processes for health care providers. As the months have passed, GOP members have become less supportive, questioning not only the necessity of the closures and the numbers behind the decisions but the way Walz has kept them informed.

The same emergency power statute provided two checks on governors. Something called the Executive Council has to approve all of his executive orders. But so far the five members — the state’s five elected constitutional officers — have voted yes every time Walz has asked for approval.

The other check is that the declarations have a 30-day lifespan. And while Walz can extend them for another 30 days, lawmakers must be given the change to vote to rescind those powers. That was the reason for all those monthly special sessions in 2020, during which the GOP-controlled Senate repeatedly voted to rescind and the DFL-controlled House moved to block that action.

Did the election change the numbers? Hortman’s 75-59 majority shrank to 70-64 after the November election. And there are enough members of her caucus who took a vote in 2020 hostile to the governor’s powers that could tip the balance. But Hortman said she is confident that she can hold the majority when GOP members act to try to end Walz’s emergency powers.

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There are some insidery reasons for that confidence. All but one of the votes last year that gave Republicans hope around the issue were procedural motions — about allowing the House to take up the issue, not votes against the powers themselves. Rural DFLers in close elections might have wanted a vote they could use to show that they had questions about closures and other Walz actions.

But the more important reason is that the virus is again surging and could remain dangerous for much of the session. 

If that changes, and if the vaccine gets wide circulation and infections are lower, it could allow changes to restrictions and emergency powers, Hortman said. “I’m not going to make an ironclad promise that nothing is going to change over the course of the session,” she said. 

In the Senate, Gazelka said emergency powers would be one of four priority issues for his caucus, along with the budget, redistricting and election law changes, including requiring a photo ID for voting. “I’m looking forward to a day where emergency powers are lifted and the governor feels like we can get there,” Gazelka said. “I’m hoping that it’s sooner rather than later.”

Budget

Budgeting is the primary constitutionally and statutorily required action for the Legislature in 2021 (the other being redistricting). And what was a rather dreadful task has become just an unpleasant one thanks to a not-quite-so-ugly revenue forecast last month. Rather than a $2.42 billion deficit for the current budget period — and six months to solve it — lawmakers were handed a $641 million surplus. Rather than a $4.7 billion deficit for the two-year budget period starting July 1, House and Senate budget writers will face “only” a $1.27 billion deficit.

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka
All this on a base budget of around $50 billion over the two years, or a bit more than $2 billion a month. And it comes with the state continuing to hold $2.36 billion in its rainy day savings account.

Minnesota wasn’t alone in overestimating the negative impact of the COVID recession; the economy was never as bad off as was predicted due to the uneven impacts of layoffs and business losses.

Even those December numbers will change late in February, with another revenue forecast. Until then, GOP members will speak of living within current revenue and looking for cuts. And DFL members will speak of the hard work done by state spending and the need to increase taxes on those who did well during the pandemic.

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Hortman describes it as the difference between the DFL’s “abundance mentality” and the GOP’s “scarcity mentality.” The former believes the state has enough wealth and know-how to solve problems and make sure education and social services are adequate. The latter believes that taxes are already too high and government is already too large.

As such, Hortman doesn’t rule out tax increases, and Gazelka does.

“We do not plan on having any tax increases,” he said. “So no gas tax increase. We also have a sizable reserve for emergencies and if this is not an emergency, I’m not sure what is.

“It’s a difficult budget, but I absolutely see a way through it with the resources we have,” Gazelka said.

As noted, neither approach may be necessary, depending on the forecast in February.

Bonding

Sen. Tom Bakk is no dummy. The Cook DFLer and former Senate majority leader who broke from the DFL caucus last month took the chair of the Capital Investment Committee as a reward. He wouldn’t have done that if he wasn’t assured that there will be a bonding bill this session — something that the GOP majority didn’t produce in the 2019 session.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk
MinnPost file photo by Briana Bierschbach
Sen. Tom Bakk
It appears, then, that the Legislature will revert to previous form, producing a small bonding bill in odd-year sessions (in the $1 billion range) and a large bonding bill in the even-year sessions (in the $1.5 billion to $2 billion range).

And if getting back to that is the goal, a budget will emerge in the closing days of the 2019 session with enough in it to attract the 60 percent majority vote — read “bipartisan” — to pass both chambers. 

Redistricting

The Minnesota State Legislature — as an institution — isn’t very good at redistricting. Not since 1970 has the House, Senate and governor agreed on a plan for redrawing post-census legislative district lines. Not since 1980 have they avoided needing help from the courts to redraw congressional district lines. Some of the blame goes to voters, who have intentionally (or not) sent divided government to St. Paul each time redistricting is on the agenda.

If it were just about equal numbers of residents — or not dividing communities of interest such as cities or communities of color — it would be hard enough. But there are political advantages that last a decade for the party that can fine-tune the partisan makeup of enough districts. Toss in the likely occurrence of Minnesota losing one of its eight congressional districts and it can be impossible because it has been impossible.

Gazelka said he is optimistic the three power centers can agree this year. Both the House and Senate have special committees, with the Senate appointing Sen. Mark Johnson of East Grand Forks and the House naming Rep. Mary Murphy of Hermantown as chairs.

“For 30 years or so nobody’s been able to get it done,” Gazelka said. “I’m trying to take the optimistic approach that there’s no reason we can’t get it done without it going to the courts.”

But there’s a wrinkle. Normally the Census finishes its report by the end of the year and gets more-specific block data to states by April 1. The end-of-year deadline was missed for the first time because of delays from COVID. And it is unlikely that the block data will reach the committees before the end of the regular session in mid-May.