A law of human nature may be the best way to understand how a Minnesota Legislature with seven to 10 days of work will end up taking 16 or 17 days to finish its business.
It’s a corollary of Parkinson’s Law, which says work expands to fill the time allotted. This one says that partisan battles will emerge to fill all the time available. And it is working against the best intentions of the two top leaders of the Legislature and the state’s governor.
For two weeks, the trio preached that not only would lawmakers pass a series of omnibus budget bills to avoid a shutdown of state government, but that all those bills would be adopted early enough to avoid even preparations for a shutdown.
Both House Speaker Melissa Hortman and Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka predicted that the budget would be completed in seven to 10 days, starting with the convening of the special session on June 14. Early last week, when presented with the approaching expiration of that timeline, Gazelka quipped: “I blew over it. Sorry.”
But he was hardly worried. All would be fine, he said. Hortman donned a similar What, me worry? countenance. Gov. Tim Walz joined in.
“I’m feeling very optimistic,” he said Friday.
Confident that the budget would be adopted in time — that a shutdown was not only unacceptable but not gonna happen — he only worried about pushing the deadline unnecessarily. Contingency plans for shutting down agencies and construction projects, even if they won’t be needed, are burdensome and not without a price tag, he said.
One example is the public safety and judiciary omnibus bill, the place where funding for the courts and prison can be found but also the bill that includes police accountability measures, had been described as very close to being done for many days. Walz said last week the time had come to take what is available and try for more another day.
But a key negotiator — DFL Rep. Cedrick Frazier of New Hope — described the law of deadlines at the end of last week: “All I know is we’re not done. I’m unwilling to speculate on what would pass or would not pass until we’re actually done and I see what’s in that bill.”
Not until Saturday night — late Saturday night — was an agreement reached, with the actual bill not appearing until Sunday morning. Legislative logistics and rules mean it won’t be debated and voted on until Tuesday.
The June 30 deadline isn’t the only one flouted by lawmakers. The budget was supposed to be finished by the constitutional end of the regular session. That was May 17. Even with a rough-draft agreement in hand, legislative committees barely glanced at two additional deadlines set by Gazelka and Hortman to finish work on the budget numbers by Memorial Day and policy language a week later.
Perhaps it’s natural procrastination. But there is also politics to factor in. A deal struck too early leaves advocates feeling that the fight was abandoned too early. It’s that sentiment that has pushed lawmakers to the edge of deadlines — and seen them cross over those deadlines.
Gazelka seemed intent on lighting a fire under his own members when he quoted from a 2017 state Supreme Court decision saying justices weren’t going to bail out the state again by ordering key government functions to continue during a shutdown.
House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler said earlier this month that he has been reminding his members of the history of shutdowns. “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.”
Calculations about the difference between contrived deadlines and real ones lets rank-and-file members (and even some leaders) figure there is no harm in one last fight or two — and no real risk in engaging in a last-minute play to their political bases.
So in the first week of the special session, we got House minority Republicans — unhappy at being excluded from bargaining between the DFL House and the GOP Senate — waging a three-day filibuster that slowed the passage of agreed-upon bills.
Then, a dustup over a refinery safety measure — an outgrowth of the strike at the Marathon refinery in St. Paul Park — saw a worker-supported amendment get bipartisan support in both houses, despite opposition from Senate GOP leaders.
And on Friday, Gazelka was the source of a threatened delay, when he amended the agreed-to state government omnibus bill in order to end the peacetime state of emergency and reduce fines on businesses that disobeyed Walz’s pandemic closure orders.
That move came just minutes after Walz had said he would end the emergency on his own, on Aug. 1, leading to a schoolyard back and forth akin to: “YOU can’t end the emergency, WE’RE ending the emergency.”
Work to be done
House DFL leaders will likely remove the Gazelka amendments when the House takes up that funding bill Monday. Whether they then add some agreed upon language that would let the Legislature end the emergency is still to be determined. That amendment is meant to preserve some powers for Walz to continue to run vaccination and testing regimes, redeploy state employers back to regular duties and maximize federal food stamp enhancements.
Through all the drama — some of it scripted — work has continued on the 13 budget bills. Seven have already been sent to Walz and five have been signing into law. The signed budgets cover agriculture, commerce, higher education, Legacy Act funding and transportation. Environmental and natural resources is on his desk. So is health and human services. Education should get there Monday.
Housing, taxes, and public safety and judiciary have announced bipartisan agreements. Two others had been headed toward completion until the refinery safety amendment was added to the so-called jobs bill and the Gazelka amendment was added to the state government omnibus. The fate of both is fuzzy, though neither side is saying they will change the underlying promise of finishing all work by midnight Wednesday.
There are a handful of other issues that must be addressed by Wednesday, including emergency powers changes, coaxing of a lumber products plant to Cohasset, an extension of the reinsurance plan to keep health insurance rates in check and a $250 million fund to give bonuses to essential pandemic workers. None are expected to delay completion of the session, and none have June 30 as a deadline.