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Where things stand at the Minnesota Legislature, one week out from a special session

The Minnesota Legislature is expected to reconvene on June 14 in order to pass a budget. Will that goal mean anything more than all the other deadlines lawmakers have already blown this year? 

House Speaker Melissa Hortman
House Speaker Melissa Hortman on May 17: “These things always take longer than people think they will.”

Deadlines have not been kind to the 2021 Minnesota Legislature. Or maybe it’s that the 2021 Minnesota Legislature hasn’t been kind to deadlines. 

On the day it convened back in January, all 201 members knew the regular session would end on May 17. They also knew they were supposed to pass a two-year budget by that day so it would be ready to implement when the existing budget expires at midnight on June 30.

It didn’t matter much. Despite being in the state Constitution, the end dates for regular sessions are treated more as suggestions than rules, though Gov. Tim Walz, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka and House Speaker Melissa Hortman did announce on May 17 that they’d come up with a two-page agreement on how much each of 14 budget bills could spend, an accomplishment that resulted in a barrage of back-slapping and congratulations.

Minnesota is, the trio frequently reminds, the only divided Legislature in the U.S. That the “global agreement” included  three new deadlines, however, suggested the deal was less than a solution to the budget debate. 

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“This is the start of the budget process,” Walz said that morning. 

By May 28, the lawmakers negotiating those budget bills were to have produced “spreadsheets”: the line-by-line dollar amounts that each area of government and each program in each committee’s portfolio would have for the next two years.

Most blew the deadline.

A second deadline was set for June 4. That was when the policy language on each area of the state budget was supposed to be completed. In effect, the working groups for the 14 bills were to come up with numbers first, policy second.

Most missed that deadline too. While a few committee chairs have finished their work, and a few others are close, most are still working on their bills. 

Hortman was prescient in her predictions for how much force the deadlines would have. “These things always take longer than people think they will,” she said on May 17.

Gov. Tim Walz
REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
Gov. Tim Walz
But now it is getting serious. Next week, Walz is likely to extend the peacetime state of emergency for another 30 days. If he does, state law requires him to bring lawmakers back into session so they can rescind the order if they choose. That is when legislative leaders are hoping to vote on the 14 budget omnibus bills.

To vote on bills they need agreement … and bills. Hortman has warned that drafting bills, especially budget bills, takes time: Legislative staff only has so much capacity to turn around a dozen-plus bills that are measured in the hundreds of pages each.

“One thing is numbers, and another thing is language, and we have to prevent congestion at the revisor’s office,” Hortman said, referencing the staff members who not only write legal bill language but search all references in current law to find what must be amended and revised by the new bills. To be ready to vote on bills by June 14, the work has to begin soon. 

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The timeline of 2021 is a reaction to 2019. That year, global targets came just five days before the special session, and lawmakers complained that it left too little time for meaningful work by committees. So this year, the time between targets and session is nearly a month.

“Legislators across the board said we wanted more input and more time, and that’s what they have right now,” Gazelka said. 

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka
Both Gazelka and Walz have stressed that the legal framework around shutdowns has changed, thanks to a 2017 Supreme Court decision that said that only the Legislature, not the courts, can appropriate money. That makes it unlikely that a court order can keep much of government funded, as it did during a 20-day shutdown in 2011

Gazelka might have inadvertently taken some pressure off committee chairs last week while trying to offer assurances that a shutdown will not occur on June 30. “We will be back (June 14), and we will stay back until we’re done,” Gazelka said. “We’re not going to just be in for a day. We’re gonna make sure we’re done. Once we get to June 14, some of those bills can be wrapped up immediately, maybe all of them.”

The next day, the East Gull Lake Republican said he and others “want to get done earlier than later, but we’ll have to navigate through those more difficult issues that sometimes make it go later.”

May report on tax collections coming 

It’s not a deadline, but there is one date that could impact the final budget talks. On June 10, Minnesota Management and Budget will release its report of May tax collections. Unlike the forecasts MMB produces in November and February, which predict future tax collections, these reports report money in the treasury. Whether those collections are above expectations or below can indicate whether the official forecasts are too optimistic or too pessimistic.

Walz said last week he expects the report this week to show that the state economy is doing even better than predicted. While the May report showed lower-than-predicted collections, revenue officials think it was due to the COVID-related change in tax day from mid-April to mid-May.

“We have strong budget numbers,” Walz said Thursday. “I think they will get even better here in the middle of the month with collections.” That will add to the reasons why a budget can be agreed to without a shutdown of government.

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“The financial situation we’re in, it’s solid enough to reach a compromise,” Walz said.

Hortman, however, said lawmakers don’t spend money from collections, instead relying on the official February forecast. “As long as I’ve been in the Legislature there’s been a couple of times when people have wanted to spend that money because of some urgency,” she said. 

Collections might at least give budget writers confidence that the money in the forecast, in the surplus, and in the federal distribution from the American Rescue Plan Act is real and won’t disappear mid-budget.

One other factor that could well drive lawmakers to finish the budget doesn’t show up in deadlines, in spreadsheets or in bill drafts: fatigue. Lawmakers were in session for 123 days in 2020 for a pandemic-disrupted regular session and seven special sessions. And they’ve been in session 133 days so far in 2021.

“A lot of legislators, commissioners, the governor want the session to end and be done with the 14-months of the constant wrangling and negotiations,” said House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler. “They’re just exhausted.”