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Six takeaways from the Minnesota Legislature’s 2021 regular session

From the role of federal stimulus money to the sidelining of once hot-button issues, what we know (or think we know) about the just-completed session. 

State senators entering the Minnesota Senate chambers on the first day of the 2021 legislative session.
State senators entering the Minnesota Senate chambers on the first day of the 2021 legislative session.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

Here are six things we know — or think we know — about the just-completed regular session of the Minnesota Legislature and what we can guess about the pending special session next month.

It ended pretty much as leaders predicted it would

When asked about the apparent futility of two parties with such different positions ever agreeing on different policy issues, the leaders always mentioned 2019. That was the last time a budget session was held with a divided Legislature and a first-term governor and everything more or less worked out.

At the start of the 2021  session, DFL House Speaker Melissa Hortman said: “It might look and feel different, but hopefully the result will be the same.”

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So far, it has been. In the waning days of the regular session, Hortman, Gov. Tim Walz and Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka did what they did two years ago. They reached an agreement on the big spending issues and set the conference committees to work on the details.

Gov. Tim Walz, with budget agreement in hand, leading Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka and House Speaker Melissa Hortman to a May 17 news conference.
Gov. Tim Walz, with budget agreement in hand, leading Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka and House Speaker Melissa Hortman to a May 17 news conference.
Between now and whenever a special session is called — sometime before June 14 it seems — those details will be worked out, or they won’t. Some will get resolved by the Big Three after dueling committee chairs plead their case, or they won’t.

As Hortman said, “We don’t want to solve the problems of people with bad personalities.”

At least state government won’t shut down on July 1 after all.

A lot of stuff that seemed important … disappeared

Would the Senate fire more of Walz’s commissioners? 

Would DFLers who control the House be able to push through a recreational marijuana bill? 

Would Republicans who control the state Senate  push through voting access restrictions like voter ID as a way to further unfounded claims of irregularities in the 2020 election? 

Would the House DFL fail to hold the line against GOP-led efforts to rescind the governor’s emergency declarations? 

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Would the DFL tax the rich? 

Would Minnesota join other states and legalize — and profit from — sports betting? 

Would the House and Senate agree on providing money for state police and National Guard deployments around the Derek Cauvin trial and protests in Brooklyn Center?

Members of the National Guard are seen at the Hennepin County Government Center on Tuesday.
REUTERS/Carlos Barria
Members of the National Guard are seen at the Hennepin County Government Center during the trial of Derek Chauvin.
Would lawmakers finally break through the wall established by the liquor establishment and liberalize its drinking laws? 

Would the DFL be able to impose changes to prevent “imposter” candidates from filing under major parties like the marijuana legalization parties? 

Would the GOP restrict nonprofits devoted to providing bail? 

Would  the House DFL spend $457 million to end racism in Minnesota? 

Would the Senate GOP make vaccine passports illegal? 

Would GOP restrict contact tracing and stop the governor’s authority to declare peacetime states of emergency?

No.

It was even less transparent than previous sessions (which is really saying something)

Any legislative body looks a lot more transparent than it really is. There are lots of public meetings and public floor sessions and public rallies and public speeches. There is so much paper and so many pixels produced that no one could read it all — or really want to.

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But much of the action is done in ways and in places that are unobservable. There’s a reason the favored comeback to questions about the specifics of a bill is: “We’re not going to negotiate in the press.”

Now, toss in a global pandemic that restricted access to the state Capitol building and the committee rooms in the State Office Building. Mix in a big fence put up after threats to the Capitol after the murder of George Floyd. Finish with a tendency of many legislators to “attend” meeting from home. And what once had the appearance of openness lost even that fig leaf.

Minnesota State Capitol
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Minnesota State Capitol
Between now and the special session, conference committees that morphed into “working groups” might have Zoom meetings — or not. Either way, the real negotiations between committee chairs will be out of sight. And a dozen omnibus bills with hundreds of pages that include scores of significant policies will reach the House and Senate floors with only hours of advance notice.

But at least state government won’t shut down July 1. 

We learned what happened when lawmakers can’t ‘negotiate in the press’

One benefit of the COVID cloak that has been tossed over open government is that the tendency by some politicians to work TV cameras could no longer be satisfied. In 2019, negotiators would often emerge from closed-door meetings and present their latest offer to reporters. The hope was that their positions would be viewed as eminently reasonable and that continued failure must be the fault of the other side.

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Until the final week of the 2021 session, however — when more people were fully vaccinated — such media scrums didn’t happen. So even if there was a tendency to complicate bargaining by negotiating in the press, there was less press in which to do the negotiating.

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka
MinnPost photo by Walker Orenstein
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka speaking to reporters about putting together a budget deal.
Gazelka credited progress during the waning days to a decision by the Big Three — Hortman, Walz and himself — to talk to each other rather than over each other, and Hortman noted that talks go more smoothly when “the two gentlemen I work with step away from the microphones.”

Uncle Joe made it all possible

The DFL — Walz and the party’s legislators all — wanted to raise taxes on the highest earning Minnesotans and corporations. While the extra money might not be needed for this budget, it would be for future budgets — if the DFL’s corresponding program additions in education, equity and small business programs passed.

The GOP said it wasn’t the time for new spending, or for higher taxes — that the pandemic was rough and people needed time to get past it.

Pretty divergent positions. Then two things happened, developments that — while not bringing the parties together — let both sides get what they wanted. The first was a state and national economy that in one year went from recession to recovery, so much so that it produced a healthy surplus in the state budget forecast — an unheard of speed for such an economic cycle.

Then two presidents signed bills that sent an unprecedented amount of cash to the states. The $900 billion COVID relief law signed by President Trump in December funded stimulus checks, additional PPP loans and jobless benefits and recovery programs, including $375 million in rental assistance Minnesota is getting ready to spend.

Then, in March, President Biden signed the American Rescue Plan and billions more flowed. Minnesota will benefit from $9 billion in money from the ARP alone. And it was that money, more than any other cache of cash, that let the GOP and DFL both declare victory last week.

President Joe Biden
REUTERS/Tom Brenner
In March, President Biden signed the American Rescue Plan and billions more flowed.

There’s still a lot to be decided 

The work being done somewhere over the coming weeks will spend the money the Big Three allotted each budget area. But it will also be deciding which policies will end up inside the hundreds of pages of text. Only when the bills are released, likely only hours before the session begins to pass them, will anyone know what made it and what didn’t.

And here’s what is still in play: police reform issues, including pretext police stops and regulation of no-knock warrants; modernization of hate crimes laws; decriminalizing fare evasion on Metro Transit buses and trains; security improvements around the state Capitol complex; extension of the historic preservation tax credit; an affordable housing tax credit for public-private housing projects; clean cars emissions standards; an “off ramp” to smooth the transition off of the eviction moratorium; and a bonding bill to fund constructions projects, including rebuilding after the 2020 riots in Minneapolis and St. Paul.