When the Minnesota Legislature reconvenes Tuesday, it will have four and half weeks before the state constitution says it must adjourn. Will the narrative be that a divided Legislature exercised compromise and got more done than anyone thought possible? Or will it be that election year politics got in the way of dealmaking?
Here’s a look at six big issues that might still get finished — or be seen as the biggest lost opportunities of the 2022 Minnesota Legislature:
Budget and taxes
You might think it would be pretty easy to spend $9.25 billion (the amount of the state’s revenue surplus) and $1.1 billion (the amount left over from cash sent to the state by the federal American Rescue Plan). But when Senate Republicans and House DFLers have such different priorities as to how to do it, it can become victim to paralyzing partisan politics and philosophical differences.
There should be enough cash for everyone — Gov. Tim Walz included — to get some of what they want. But that is only true if all three sides want to come away with something before heading toward the election. The question of how to return some of the surplus to taxpayers is illustrative: Walz favors one-time spending in the form of rebate checks; Republicans lean toward cutting income tax rates permanently and ending income taxes on all Social Security income; DFLers want to target tax cuts at lower-income residents, families and also to help pay off student loans and to help first-time homebuyers.
Reducing violent crime remains a top priority for both parties, but there is very little common ground in what the DFL-led House and Republican-majority Senate have proposed.
The latest major House DFL plan, which includes many but not all of the party’s initiatives, contains $150 million that could be spent on a range of public safety efforts, such as recruiting police officers, funding community nonprofits that perform violence interruption work, and homelessness or mental health aid.
The Senate Republican proposals include more than $71 million for police departments to help with hiring, training and rewarding officers, and a small amount of new money for youth intervention programs. But the GOP also has proposed new laws and tougher criminal penalties on things like carjacking, changes that would lead to many more people in prison.
Two areas of (general) agreement: More funding for officer recruiting and police body cameras.
Since last year, lawmakers have broadly agreed the state should quickly help livestock and specialty crop farmers recover from the 2021 drought. But they can’t manage to actually pass a bill to do it.
The DFL-controlled House approved a bill that includes $10.1 million in loans and grants, but it also includes $13.35 million for several other drought programs, mainly for local governments to increase water efficiency, plant shade trees in drought-impacted areas and restore seedlings on land managed by the Department of Natural Resources and other owners.
That money for water and trees has been controversial. Democrats see it as necessary to help public resources hurt by drought. But Republicans who have a majority in the state Senate have balked, saying the money for DNR and others is unrelated to agriculture, needs more scrutiny and can be negotiated as part of a broader budget deal rather than fast-tracked like the money for farmers.
The Senate GOP bill includes $7 million in grants, and $1.5 million in loans for farmers, as well as $1 million for equipment for the University of Minnesota to test for animal diseases and $500,000 to buy state testing supplies for the avian influenza.
House and Senate leaders plan to meet Tuesday afternoon in what’s known as a conference committee, where they will try to find a version of the legislation they can both agree to.
Booze and gambling bills
No, this has nothing to do with the Peanuts’ (and Minnesota favorite daughter) Lucy van Pelt yet again saying she won’t pull the football away at the last minute. It just seems like what should certainly be the Official Minnesota Political Cliché is apt, thanks to the repeated teasing by advocates about the better odds this time for liberalizing alcohol laws and legalizing sports betting.
Could 2022 be different? Perhaps. For one, the lead sponsor in the House — Rep. Zack Stephenson, DFL-Coon Rapids — is the chair of the committee with jurisdiction over both. In addition, liquor lobbyists have achieved that other political cliché popular at the statehouse: peace in the valley, which describes when warring factions come to an agreement on their own rather than demand that lawmakers referee. Finally, tribes with casino operations in the state have lifted their opposition to sports betting, which had previously posed a hurdle for many DFL leaders.
The wild card (yes, that’s three political cliché in three paragraphs) is Senate Commerce Committee Chair Gary Dahms, R-Redwood Falls, who hasn’t been an advocate for expanding access to either gambling or alcohol. So far Dahms has kept his cards close … hasn’t said what he will do with either bill should they pass the House.
Unemployment Insurance (UI) and essential worker bonuses
You might think it would be easier to resolve issues when there is general agreement on the problem — and the goal — among House and Senate leaders and the governor. All think some of the surplus/federal funds should go toward repaying a loan to the federal government that was used to keep jobless checks flowing during the pandemic. All agree that some money needs to be put back into the state unemployment insurance trust fund to keep it solvent and avoid more borrowing. And all already agreed to spend some federal COVID money to give bonus checks to essential workers who couldn’t work from home during the heat of the pandemic.
Those three issues were once considered to be potential “early wins,” the stuff of legend around the State Capitol that describes issues that can pass quickly but never seem to.
But how much should be devoted to so-called “Hero Checks” for essential workers? Which workers should receive them? How much money should be devoted to refilling the state UI trust fund? How high UI taxes on employers should rise?
All are the types of questions that can turn early wins into typical and long-lasting arguments.
A bonding bill
There is an informal rule in the Minnesota Legislature that sessions occurring during odd-numbered years should be devoted to crafting a two-year operating budget and those during even-numbered years should be focused on coming up with what’s called a bonding bill, which pays for public construction projects via state bonds. This is one of those even-numbered-year sessions. Yet much of the energy of the session has been toward the operating budget, mainly because of all that cash in the bank (along with the money projected to end up there).
Still, there is some sense that a bonding bill is possible if not likely. The debate will be over how much to borrow — and which projects get blessed. Will it contain mostly state projects including roads and bridges or will local projects be included? How will the federal infrastructure bill that was passed last year fuel more construction spending and which spending areas will gain the required state matching investment?
Walz has proposed a $2.73 billion bonding plan. The House and Senate bonding chairs have not yet released their plans.
Because the state constitution requires a 60 percent majority vote on bonding bills, this is the one major issue where members of the minority parties in each chamber get to play. That usually means that projects of interest to DFLers in the Senate and Republicans in the House are added to the project list. But it also means that minority members who are often ignored in the legislative process get a say (or a veto) if they don’t get enough.