As Minnesota legislators began gathering for a special session on Monday — with predictions of its length varying from seven to 10 days — a bill introduced on day one could make things better. Or much, much worse.
If passed, Senate File 22 would allow any area of state government to keep operating at current spending levels should lawmakers not agree on a new budget. So if an impasse is reached, there would be no government shutdown.
That’s a good thing, most people around state government believe.
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said it would be a failsafe approach that would be used rarely, only if agreement isn’t reached by the time a new budget period begins on July 1 of odd-numbered years. “We’re not trying to blind-side anybody,” Gazelka said Monday. “We’re just trying to say, ‘Look, if for some reason some budget breaks down, we should have a continuing resolution.’ But most everything is wrapping up and I fully expect everything to be wrapped up.”
He called the bill “due diligence.”
House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, compared it to the emergency tool her husband gave her to break the car window in case her car plunges into water. “It’s good to have it but I don’t think we’re gonna need it,” Hortman said.
But if such a provision were in law now, it would effectively remove all deadline pressure from lawmakers, who have already missed several deadlines in their halting path to pass a budget this session. The threat of a government shutdown on July 1 is the only date remaining that could force agreement.
Removing that hammer might not be so good.
“It’s just not the way to do business,” Walz said last week during the opening of a vaccine clinic at the Minneapolis-St.Paul International Airport. He compared the deadlines lawmakers face to the flight schedules of pilots and flight attendants.
“They don’t get to randomly say, ‘We’re not happy with how that’s happened and we’re gonna wait for another month or so,’” he said. “I’m encouraging people not to think that these aren’t hard deadlines.”
Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent, DFL-Woodbury, said there have been conversations among legislators about whether to follow the lead of the U.S. Congress, which often uses continuing resolutions that maintain current spending when new budgets can’t be agreed to.
Such resolutions have become the rule rather than the exception, though.
“Historically, people have said no, we need to do our jobs,” Kent said. Yet House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said having such a law would be better than a government shutdown, especially now that the Minnesota Supreme Court has ruled it will no longer come in to bail out the Legislature with court-ordered appropriations for essential services.
House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, saw something more sinister in the Gazelka proposal: a tool that could help Republicans prevail in budget talks in the future. “The subtext of a lot of these negotiations is the Republicans do not … believe in a public investment approach to improving the lives of Minnesotans,” Winkler said, calling out public schools, transportation and health care.
“You change the dynamics of the budgeting process,” he said of the default to current spending for any failure to agree on a budget. “It allows a Senate Republican majority, or any Republican majority, or any Republican governor, to essentially have an ability to walk away from negotiations for the purpose of continuing baseline funding.
“I think it would be a terrible mistake,” he said. “Whatever good government arguments they make is covering the fact that disinvestment is their mission.”
Agreement on eviction moratorium off-ramp
Both Gazelka and Hortman expressed more optimism about not needing such a mechanism than they had in the weeks leading to the start of Monday’s session. “The fact is, if we don’t get done by July 1 the ramifications are too serious for Minnesota,” Gazelka said. “Most everything is together. We have a few loose ends but … we’re gonna get it done.”
Also introduced Monday is a bill that will allocate $800 million in tax reductions, mostly to those who received pandemic business and jobless aid. Lawmakers working on the jobs omnibus bill are finishing the details on a $150 million fund to help businesses who were hurt by the pandemic or damaged in the rioting following the death of George Floyd.
The last bill to be finished could be the judiciary and public safety omnibus package, which will include some additional policing reforms, Gazelka and Hortman said.
One other sticking-point has been resolved, with lawmakers agreeing on a smooth transition from a pandemic eviction ban to a return to pre-COVID landlord-tenant law. The eviction moratorium “off-ramp” seemed far out of reach just last week, when tenant advocates and DFL legislators held a press conference complaining that Senate Republicans did not appear interested in agreement. But that went away over the weekend with a package that includes a timetable created by the Senate, with a temporary requirement that tenants be given written notice before evictions can be filed with the courts. The notice was a House DFL demand.
If the bill is adopted on Wednesday, a three-phase, 105-day timetable that would end the ban on most evictions would be triggered. Starting around July 1, landlords could begin to evict tenants who violated the terms of leases for reasons other than non-payment of rent. Such “material breaches” of leases might include damage to property, using the property for criminal acts or for tenants who are endangering other renters.
Starting in August, landlords would be able to issue non-renewal of leases for those who fell behind on their rent during the pandemic but don’t qualify for rental assistance using federal American Rescue Plan dollars.
Starting in October, tenants could receive eviction notices even if they qualify for help, though anyone who has applied for assistance and is awaiting a ruling from the program cannot be forced to give up a house or apartment until June of 2022.
That program, available at RentHelpMN.org, will pay up to 15 months worth of back rent for tenants who have incomes at or below 80 percent of median household income.
That number varies depending on where you live in Minnesota: a one-person household would qualify with an income below $40,700 if they live in Aitkin County, for example, but $54,950 if they live in the Metro Twin Cities. A rule of thumb, however, is that people who qualify for benefits like food stamps, Minnesota Family Investment Program, general assistance or subsidized housing will likely qualify for rental assistance as well.
Not included in the deal is a GOP priority of permanently changing a governor’s power to issue orders that ban evictions. Only if such a moratorium was endorsed by both the House and Senate could it be enacted.
Also gone is a DFL priority to make it easier for tenants to get unlawful evictions — or evictions denied by a judge — removed from their records. Past eviction attempts, even those not endorsed by the courts, can make it harder for people to find replacement housing for up to seven years.
And the eviction notice is less than the DFL had hoped for. It will only apply until the timeline is completed, sometime in the fall of 2021. “Ultimately I think both sides can feel pretty good about the off-ramp language,” said Rep. Mike Howard, DFL-Richfield, one of the negotiators. “Let’s be honest. It’s been a tense and anxiety-filled year for both tenants and for landlords. Folks on both sides will have things they like and things they have questions marks about.”
Sen. Rich Draheim, the Madison Lake Republican who is chair of the Senate Housing Committee, said he gave up on issues he’s been working on for years in the final deal, and agreed to the House DFL insistence on notice to non-paying tenants of eviction actions.
The same notice will alert tenants to the existence of the rental assistance program and direct them toward RentHelpMN.org. “That will drive more people there to get the resources we have available to help both the housing providers and the tenants,” Draheim said.
The Minnesota Multi Housing Association, a trade group of apartment owners and managers, filed suit Monday in federal court to overturn the eviction ban.
“The fact is that the Governor implemented the eviction moratorium, and he can end it – but he hasn’t done so,” the group’s CEO Cecil Smith said in a statement. “We have been overly patient, and our residents and the housing providers of Minnesota cannot wait any longer. We have to seek relief from the court.” The pending bill would end the executive order and replace it with the phase out.
The agreement on the eviction moratorium could be the most visible evidence of the work done over the weekend by Walz, Gazelka and Hortman to bring battling committee chairs into meetings to either get deals done or abandon some partisan priorities.
“We certainly let the committees do their work. We did not get involved until they got stuck,” Gazelka said. “Then we had conversations with them on how do we get unstuck.” Of each sides’ priorities, Gazelka said some are held onto in hopes for trades while others “just go overboard.”
Howard said the housing bill negotiators did go before the Big Three over the weekend. “I think that helped shake things loose a little bit,” he said.