Trying to figure out what is happening at the Minnesota Legislature might require listening to what isn’t being said.
A state budget must be approved by the DFL House and the GOP Senate — and signed by DFL Gov. Tim Walz — by midnight June 30 to prevent a total shutdown of state government. In the past, there was always the possibility that the courts would bail out the executive and legislative branches for their failure to agree. But that possibility disappeared in 2017, when the courts said no budget means no budget — that a shutdown means the state would actually shut down.
This year, all of the decision makers are saying they don’t want a shutdown, but none are saying they’ll block passage of the budget unless their top issues are adopted.
Without directly saying it, the rules of engagement appear to be: No hostages.
An example of that approach came Thursday, in the midst of a press conference calling for passage of school choice vouchers, long a GOP priority. The measure would allow parents to put half of the state’s per student allocation into an education savings account, which could be used for non-public school expenses.
The measure is unlikely to pass, given DFL opposition. More revealing was what the Senate GOP prepared to do to force the House to accept it: Senate Education Committee Chair Roger Chamberlain, R- Lino Lakes, said he wouldn’t give up unless DFLers stand in public and say they oppose it.
In fact, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said there is nothing on the GOP agenda that is worth shutting down state government over. “There are some passionate things that both sides are fighting for, and we are still fighting for those things,” the East Gull Lake Republican said. “The Senate has no issues that we would demand a shutdown to get.”
Gazelka said he thinks the committee chairs who are negotiating spending and policy issues are making progress and that agreements will start surfacing soon. “We’re the only divided Legislature in the whole country, and yet we’ve got to figure out how to do it,” he said.
“As we get farther down the road, there are things we understand will be total impasses, and we have to figure out how to let them go on either side,” Gazelka said. “We’ve had conversations in the last two days, by area, what the thorny issues are.”
Gazelka also said he is concerned that Walz won’t push his DFL allies in the House and Senate to make a similar pledge not to make ultimatums.
But just a few hours later, Walz got close to doing just that. “I don’t believe in shutting down the government. I think we have to compromise,” Walz said. “The policy issues? We should be able to find some solution.”
The governor said he agreed that a time will come that issues each side is passionate about might have to be set aside for the time being. “You have to recognize (that) in divided government … you don’t get it all your way,” Walz said. “Right now it’s about buttoning this thing up. Compromising.”
The DFL retreat on wanting to impose higher taxes on high-income earners is an example of that, he said: “They said they would never give on that, and I believed them,” Walz said of GOP opposition. “I think they’re wrong, but that’s fine.”
No shutdown issues for the DFL?
It helps that the state’s budget is in good shape, not only with strong tax collections but with billions from the federal American Rescue Plan. State tax collections will look even better next week when the May tax collections report is released, Walz said.
For the record, House Majority Leader Ryan Winker, DFL-Golden Valley, and both House education committee chairs said Thursday the DFL clearly opposes Chamberlain’s school voucher proposal. And while Winkler agreed that there will come a time for issues to be set aside, he’s not ready to provide a list of priorities that the caucus is ready to give up on.
“I suppose that typically happens as you get closer to final agreement,” Winkler said. “But until the last issues are resolved, you don’t really know which issues might be subject to trade or negotiation.”
Winkler said the question over which issues could lead to a shutdown is the question that has caused state and federal shutdowns in the past. “There is something implicit in the question that going to a shutdown is the sign of ultimate commitment to an issue,” he said. “But forcing a shutdown over an issue doesn’t make it more likely to get that issue resolved in your favor. That is the history of shutdowns. It’s a defiant act but it is symbolic and costly and painful and it doesn’t result in a better outcome for the goal that you have on any issue.”
So, are there no shutdown issues for the DFL?
“I think that might have been a scenario several months ago, but I think we have negotiated to the point now where we have enough success and enough issues still in play where the scenario of a shutdown seems remote,” he said.
Police accountability and public safety might have been such an issue for the DFL months ago, but Winkler said there has been progress between the House and Senate. “That would probably be the signature issue now that’s left on the table that is essential for us to get a good agreement on, and that seems within reach,” Winkler said. “Because we all know it’s the toughest thing, it will probably be the last thing.”
The Senate GOP made an offer to the House this week about the policing bills it could accept. Gazelka declined to give details, as did Walz, though the governor called the offer legitimate, even if he didn’t think it didn’t go far enough.
“I do believe the Senate is still trying to work on those issues,” Walz said. “They certainly gave some things that I thought were a step in the right direction.” Winkler agreed, adding that law enforcement groups have been working on the issue.
Divides remain over emergency powers, eviction moratorium, Clean Cars
Walz and legislative leaders knew certain recent actions would be interpreted by some as evidence of stalled negotiations over the budget. State law requires 30-day notices be sent to state workers who could be laid off due to a shutdown, and there are other moves — such as slowing road projects and posting warnings on parks reservation sites — required before a shutdown would occur.
And there are big issues that remain, including: Walz’s emergency powers; how to end the state’s eviction moratorium; GOP-pushed voting changes; and an administrative proposal to create what are called “Clean Car” emissions rules.
Of those, only policing appears to have a chance of producing a compromise, though both sides say failure on the eviction moratorium would be bad for tenants, landlords and the court.
Walz said he has not heard an acceptable proposal from the GOP to end his emergency declaration. He also said that if an agreement can be reached to phase out the eviction moratorium it will be less of an issue. While the GOP thinks the state of emergency should not be extended beyond June 14, Gazelka expects it will be, and is planning the budget session to begin that day because state law requires the Legislature to meet when an emergency is extended.
The Clean Car emissions standards are not an issue that can be discarded like the others. Walz is working to develop and finalize the standards administratively, which means they will take effect unless the Legislature acts to repeal or delay them. The rules would require auto manufacturers to create cars that pollute less; and mandate auto manufacturers provide more electric, plug-in hybrid or hydrogen-powered cars for sale in Minnesota.
GOP Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, had threatened to block the environment and natural resources budget if the rule stayed in place. But Gazelka has since backed the Senate GOP away from that, calling instead for a two-year delay.
Walz said Thursday he opposes that and expects the rule to move ahead.
Another issue highlighted Thursday was the DFL plan to create a state paid family leave plan that would operate in a similar way to the state’s workers compensation system. Employers would pay a premium into the system and workers could get some pay when they take time off work to give birth, adopt children, for illness or to care for a sick partner or child. Backers held a press conference in front of the Minnesota Senate Building to support the plan, though it too is unlikely to get past the Senate GOP, which has opposed it though it remains in the negotiation process.
“As negotiations continue and the June 14 special session comes around, every issue that is not already decided on becomes less and less likely,” Winkler said.