It’s part of the dance at the Minnesota Legislature (and most legislatures): The opening weeks are devoted to introductions of new members, primers on state agencies and programs, and the unveiling of legislative agendas.
To that end, the Senate GOP caucus released its legislative plan Thursday. It includes bills that would allow businesses to reopen once they have a COVID safety plan; end the governor’s authority to close schools and limit other emergency powers; cut state agencies’ budgets by 5 percent; impose a Voter ID requirement; create private-school scholarships for low-income students; and block new clear air standards for cars.
For their part, the House majority DFL caucus showed its work a week ago, with pandemic-response initiatives addressing housing, food programs, broadband expansion, paid worker leave, learning loss in COVID-restricted schools, and the restoration of voting rights to unjailed felons.
What’s different in St. Paul than in other state capitals is that the Minnesota Legislature is divided, which means that House bills must pass the GOP-controlled Senate to get to Gov. Walz, and Senate bills must pass the DFL-controlled House to do the same. Given that, are the agendas examples of the art of the possible — or the art of the improbable? Are lawmakers creating starting points for negotiations that might lead to actual laws — or are they simply “virtue signaling” to their partisan bases?
And if little of this stuff will ever make it to the desk of the governor, then why bother? Why not just recess until the February forecast that triggers budget-writing season?
‘Bills are sometimes a to-do list’
As expected, legislators balk at such talk. Lawmakers were once candidates who ran on issues, and they didn’t spend all that time and money to get election certificates they so often brag about and not even try to check items off their to-do lists.
House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler says he doesn’t want his members introducing frivolous bills that can’t — or shouldn’t — pass. “In the end, we’re in divided government and the public expects us to do as much as we can on their behalf,” he said. “If we spend too much time virtue signaling instead of legislating, we’re not serving the public interest.”
But the Golden Valley DFLer also said there are also numerous examples of issues that have passed — with bipartisan support — that were written off when first introduced. The divided Legislature passed a police reform package last summer that was far more meaningful than was first expected. A large bonding bill passed in the fall. And in 2019, the Legislature passed a balanced budget — with the renewal of the health care provider tax that had been considered dead for months.
“Some bills are very unlikely to become law with the approval of the Senate, but we don’t really know at the front end what those will be,” Winkler said. And starting negotiations with bills that split differences between two sides isn’t a wise strategy, he said. “Unless they do the exact same thing, you’re going to end up going far in their direction.”
Lawmakers have other reasons to file bills and set them onto legislative agendas that have little chance of passage. It’s how they build public pressure for change, for one thing, but it’s also how they build support over time for ideas that the other side might not support at first. “Bills are sometimes a to-do list,” Winkler said. “You keep coming back, year after year after year until people understand, ‘We have to deal with this, it isn’t going to just disappear.’”
Pushing only the bills that the other chamber might consider, he said, “is basically giving the Senate a veto” on your agenda.
More fundamentally, legislators and caucus push bills because they reflect their political beliefs — and the beliefs of their supporters. Or as Winkler puts it: “It keeps the team happy.”
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka echoes Winkler’s you-never-know-until-you-try explanation — that stranger things have happened in St. Paul than the resuscitation bills that had once been given up for dead. One possibility of that for this session, Gazelka said, could be legislation rethinking a governor’s emergency powers. “We’re focusing on issues we think Minnesotans care about, and when you work toward negotiations there are things that end up happening that either one side or the other want in a global agreement,” Gazelka said.
Managing lawmakers’ expectations
The 2021 session of the Legislature is different than any that has come before. While the 2020 Legislature was disrupted when the COVID-19 pandemic struck a month into the session. This year’s session, in contrast, was designed for disruption, and Gazelka said all four caucus leaders — at least the caucuses with more than five members — have told their members to lower their legislative gaze.
“We’ve all talked to our members about managing our expectations,” the East Gull Lake Republican said. “Don’t try to do everything that’s important to you because this year we’ve got to get this budget done and COVID will make it difficult.”
Gazelka has asked his members to try to keep down the number of bills they introduce this year, a concession to the oddness of the session and the demands it has placed on staff. “It takes time to process a bill even if it’s not going to go anywhere,” he said. “But it’s challenging. Each legislator has their election certificate, they have things that they want to run on. So there is a tension there.”
Winkler also said he has asked his members to show respect for House staffers who have to research and draft bills, which is harder than it might appear, and is tougher still while they are working from home during the pandemic and perhaps helping teach children. And so far, there have been about 100 fewer bills introduced compared to the same time in 2019: 269 this year compared to 375 to two years ago.
The must-do list for the 2021 session is small: a two-year state budget, post-2020 Census redistricting, pandemic response and perhaps some election law changes. The budget is the top priority for the lawmakers since failure could cause a July 1 shutdown of state government, though responding to COVID-19 shares a top spot.
The first months of the session will be spent on each chamber’s legislative priorities with the final weeks on the budget. And both Gazelka and House Speaker Melissa Hortman say they are optimistic that a balanced budget can be achieved by the Legislature’s required adjournment in May.
“I have a good relationship with the speaker where we both have found ways to navigate thorny issues and get to a place we can agree,” Gazelka said.
During the last budget session, in 2019, neither side saw their partisan agenda advanced very far, but the budget deal was reached mostly on time. And bills on long-term care, texting while driving and responding to the opioid epidemic all passed.
“In some ways you’ve seen this movie before, the players haven’t changed,” said Hortman, “and my hope is the ending will be similar.”