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It’s ‘theater’ week at the Minnesota Legislature

Legislators charged with working out the state budget really can’t do much until they’re assigned “global” spending targets by their leaders. And those numbers won’t be available until Friday. At the earliest.

Minnesota State Capitol
Until the budget targets are announced, the public meetings where Democrats and Republicans exchange the gavel every other day will be a place where each side will tout the wisdom of their budgets while not being able to do much else.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

By one description, what happens in public this week at the Minnesota Legislature will be “staging theater.”

That’s because the joint House-Senate conference committees charged with working out the differences between the 14 areas of the state budget really can’t do much until they’re assigned their spending targets by the caucus leaders. And those “global targets” won’t be available — according to those leaders — until Friday. At the earliest.

The House and Senate built their budgets on widely different dollar amounts that are a billion dollars apart. How and when House Speaker Melissa Hortman, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka and Gov. Tim Walz agree on a single amount will be key to if and when the 2021 session finishes its work. In 2019, that day was the last day of the regular session. 

So, until the targets are announced, the public meetings where Democrats and Republicans exchange the gavel every other day will be a place where each side will tout the wisdom of their budgets while not being able to do much else. 

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“Until those three leaders get those global budget targets, really the conference committees are a bit of a staging theater,” Senate Taxes Committee Chair Carla Nelson said Friday during a meeting with the Minnesota Housing Partnership. “It’s each side drumming up why they need this or that or why this proposal or why that.”

A looming deadline

Last week, both Hortman and Gazelka said they hope to release that agreement by the end of the week. That would be 10 days before the May 17 deadline for the end of the regular session, which Nelson pointed out has been in the state constitution forever “so it’s not sneaking up on us.”

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka
The deadline also comes just as the federal government is due to present states with final guidance on how to spend the money from the American Rescue Plan, which will play into a 2021-23 budget.

Gazelka said he and Hortman have been trying to agree to targets earlier than normal because of the difficulty of holding a part-live, part-Zoom legislative session. “It just makes everything a little bit slower so we’re trying to move quicker,” Gazelka said.

“I think in order for the session to end on time, it would be optimal if we had numbers on each of the budget areas by Friday, May 7,” Hortman said. 

That means regular meetings to exchange offers — with the key sticking point being whether a budget is balanced with tax hikes that the DFL wants or with federal pandemic money or budget reserves as the GOP wants. 

Public safety, emergency powers at issue

Gazelka had been criticized by many DFLers when he rolled back an announcement to hold separate hearings on policing, instead opting to have it done in the judiciary and public safety conference committees. But Hortman said Thursday that both leaders prefer that budget and policy decisions be made by the committee chairs and committee members, even on the issues surrounding police accountability. 

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“We share the perspective that we want all of this work to happen in the conference committees,” said Hortman, a DFLer from Brooklyn Park. “We want Sen. [Warren] Limmer and Chair [Carlos] Mariani and the members of that conference committee to figure out where that middle is and bring a great bill back to the House and Senate.”

As in 2019, Hortman and Gazelka say they do not want to make all the decisions on the omnibus bills, but they will break ties and respond to impasses as necessary.

“We want the experts in those areas to do that work,” she said, which include not only committee members but the leaders of police and community groups, with leaders only getting involved if committee leaders reach out to say: “We can’t get anywhere.”

House Speaker Melissa Hortman
House Speaker Melissa Hortman
Hortman was at a press conference with Walz, other DFL lawmakers — plus one member of the conservative New Republican Caucus — to call on Gazelka to prioritize policing bills in the closing weeks of the session. Afterward, Gazelka said he was open to some of what DFLers are pushing but said two other issues are also front burner for the final days: the two-year budget and Walz’s emergency powers, which have had the state under a declaration of peacetime emergency for more than 14 months. Another 30-day extension is expected during the final week of the session. 

While Walz isn’t expected to forfeit his emergency powers, he said Friday he will announce a significant rollback in restrictions later this week and said the state will likely beat President Biden’s hope for a mostly normal Fourth of July. The DFL governor said he thinks Republicans are less concerned about the existence of a peacetime state of emergency than what he does with it.

“What they’re asking is what’s the off-ramp of things like the eviction moratorium, what’s the off-ramp on business capacity limits, and those are things we’re talking about,” Walz said Friday. 

“The good news is, the place we’re at in the pandemic, the place we’re at fiscally and the opportunity we have around public safety are coming together at kind of a nexus point,” Walz said, creating the chance for what he termed “a grand agreement.”

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That sounded similar to what Gazelka said the day before, though with less confidence. “We want to make sure that the House and Senate work together to pass the budget, to end emergency power and use those federal stimulus dollars together,” said the East Gull Lake Republican. But absent an agreement, he said the Senate was ready to do a “lights-on budget,” which would continue current spending levels, and then adjourn.

When asked, Gazelka said he would be willing to accept “a handshake agreement” on emergency powers rather than insist on changes in statute. “There’s no reason I would not take the governor at his word, or the speaker,” he said.

And while he often cites the policing bill passed last summer as the most sweeping in state history, Gazelka said he was open to further changes, though he drew the line at changes to qualified immunity for officers.

A lot like 2019

What do “global agreements” between Hortman, Gazelka and Walz look like? In 2019, the agreement not only included dollar totals for each area of the budget, it included the rule that any decisions on what was in individual omnibus bills would need to get a sign-off from Walz, Hortman and Gazelka. That set up a frantic week of closed-door meetings by committee chairs, agency commissioners and, of course, the Gang of Three — work that was only finished after a 24-hour cram session that ended just before 7 a.m. on May 25.

In that regard, 2021 could look a lot like 2019. The question remains, when is the final sprint to the end, the one triggered by the release of budget targets, going to begin.