If the state motto was the most commonly used phrase at the Minnesota Capitol, the license plates would read “only divided Legislature” instead of “10,000 Lakes.” Unlike the undercount of lakes in Minnesota, however, the line about the Legislature would be true.
It is also a convenient explanation for failure, a way to tell advocates and the base voters in each party that the other party blocked the bill. Perhaps if they worked harder at the next election and delivered the “trifecta” of government power — the governor’s office and both chambers of the Legislature — they might pass.
The flip side of the same partisan argument is that only by holding at least one of the three levers of power were bad things blocked. Republicans have said something to that effect about tax increases ever since the DFL lost control of the state Senate in Mark Dayton’s second term as governor. And DFLers point to their control of the House and governor’s office as the stopgap of measures such as expanding school choice through private-school vouchers.
Each chamber does what has to be done and agree when they have to. A two-year budget had to get done by June 30, and the sprinkling of policy items inside of the 13 budget bills were the places where lawmakers could get agreement.
Speaker Melissa Hortman “is representing and is a liberal and I’m a conservative,” Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said. “For those two sides to come together and just barely touch and close the deal and get done is way harder than you can imagine.”
This year, issue after issue was introduced during the regular session by Republicans in the Senate and DFLers in the House with the knowledge that they were unlikely to pass into law. Hearings were held, votes were taken and bills were aimed at the other chamber only to die somewhere in between.
DFLers in the House, for instance, have developed a lengthy bill to legalize, regulate and tax marijuana for recreational use. It was heard by multiple committees and ultimately, in the waning days of the regular session, passed by the House. Had there been any hope that the Senate would give it more than a passing glance, it might have come to the House floor sooner.
Republicans, taking a cue from the national party agenda, wanted to require photo identification for all voters. Though they denied the connection — and have been pushing for such a change for more than a decade — the issue raised the specter of stolen elections and illegal votes voiced by President Donald Trump. But given that voter ID had been rejected by state voters in 2012, and opposition to it has since become part of DFL political catechism, it had zero chance of getting past the House.
Introducing bills that are doomed is sometimes an exercise in virtue signaling to partisan bases, but it can also be an expression of a party’s priorities. And bills once considered dead on arrival can be resuscitated. Just two years ago, Senate Republicans made the end of the health care provider tax a centerpiece of their agenda, only to consent to its extension in the 2019 budget deal. The same was the case last summer when police accountability changes were considered a long shot before many were eventually adopted.
Yet most of the bills offered this year don’t fit into a long-game strategy.
For DFLers, the 2021 agenda included a taxation fair share plan, sometimes dubbed Tax The Rich. It called for increases in corporate and high-earner taxes to pay for programs to help lower-income residents who suffered during the pandemic. But while the impacts of the recession were uneven, the economic recovery fueled state tax collections.
The resulting surpluses made tax hikes less easy to rationalize. On top of that, billions of dollars came to the state from a trio of federal COVID response bills that made budget writing the easiest it has been in decades. Minnesota will start the next budget period with a $2.4 billion rainy day savings account, an estimated $2 billion surplus and $1 billion from the federal American Rescue Plan set aside for next year’s session to spend.
The passage of time also changed the politics around a primary GOP issue: Gov. Tim Walz’s use of executive powers under Minnesota’s peacetime state of emergency. When the session began, the state was still under indoor mask mandates and bars and restaurants remained under restricted capacity. But with the rollout of vaccines and the resulting fall off in infections and deaths, those orders have been lifted.
The Senate GOP prevailed in getting the House to agree on an immediate end to the peacetime state of emergency, though a few provisions were placed in the taxes bill to give Walz some authority to, as he puts it, to “button down” the emergency. Not successful, however, were GOP bills to change the underlying law on emergency powers, to reduce or eliminate fines on businesses that flouted orders and to end the governor’s authority to close schools. There were also GOP bills to ban vaccine passports — which have not been proposed by Walz — and restrict contact tracing.
Minnesota state government politics are not as exceptional as leaders claim it to be. It is the only state with a divided Legislature, but 11 states have divided government, that is, with one party holding the governor’s office and another the Legislature. Wisconsin, for example, has Democratic Gov. Evers and GOP majorities in the House and Senate.
But those divisions allow bills to pass to the governor for signature or veto. Vetoes can be overridden by super majorities of the Legislature. Only in Minnesota do partisan bills not even reach the governor. Walz has yet to veto a bill.
The divided Legislature has prevented other GOP bills from getting to Walz. A bill to create education savings accounts would have let parents use state dollars devoted to each public school student on private school expenses. The bill also blocked a repeal of the so-called Clean Cars rule, which will require car dealers to offer more electric cars to consumers. The issue led to a short-lived GOP threat to block passage of the natural resources budget, which could have closed state parks before the Fourth of July weekend.
Other GOP priorities that didn’t end up in bills include restrictions on housing construction rules by local governments; a ban on transgendered students taking part in sports not in line with the gender assigned at their birth; an effort to wrest control of state historic sites from the state Historical Society; and restrictions on charities that post bail for those accused of crimes.
DFL priorities including their plan to legalize recreational marijuana. The bill appeared before 12 different House committees before passing the House 72-61, but it was not heard in the Senate.
DFLers also reprised bills from the last Legislature to create a paid family and medical leave program similar to workers compensation; to provide driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants; to raise transporation taxes; to create a new board to regulate prescription drug prices; and to limit candidates who might run under a party banner when they have no affiliation with that party.
Any of these issues could have threatened completion of the state budget before the beginning of the next budget period, July 1. None did because Walz and leaders of both the House and Senate didn’t let them.
Walz explained the pragmatism of the leaders during an MPR interview Wednesday: “It’s democracy. It’s divided government. It’s still pretty much a miracle that we’re able to do these things.”