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MN Capitol notebook: The budget fights begin, 'early win' faces turmoil in St. Paul

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz on Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2019, presented his first budget proposal, which included a gas tax hike and more funding for schools. Dana Ferguson / FORUM NEWS SERVICE

ST. PAUL -- Gov. Tim Walz this week pitched his first state spending plan to the public, and it met with instant Republican opposition.

The blueprint sets the table for debates about how lawmakers ought to spend almost $50 billion over the next two years. And in the divided Legislature, it cued up early disagreements about whether lawmakers should hike taxes and fees to fund key projects.

GOP leaders quickly branded Walz's proposal "One Expensive Minnesota" but the DFL governor pointed to the historic margin by which he won his office and said he'd have the public support to get the plan through the Legislature.

In the weeks and months ahead, lawmakers in the House of Representatives and Senate will write their own spending plans. And to avoid a government shutdown, they'll have to come to an agreement on a budget by May.

But this week, compromise looked like a tough sell.

Here's a look at what went down and what else happened this week at the Capitol.

School funding boost, gas tax headline Walz budget asks

Walz on Tuesday, Feb. 19, introduced his first budget, which came with a $49.5 billion price tag.

The proposal included much of what the governor had talked about on the campaign trail: a funding boost for Minnesota schools, a gas tax hike to fund repairs to roads and bridges, a "moonshot" push to expand rural broadband and more money for local government aid and economic development projects.

And Walz also pitched a $1.12 billion bonding bill set to be presented next week. Combined, the spending bills could make transformational changes to in Minnesota education, health care and community prosperity, he said.

“We’re going to make the case that the bonding bill coupled with this budget is the biggest investment that’s ever been placed in Greater Minnesota,” Walz told reporters at a legislative breakfast for Duluth and St. Louis County business owners and local officials.

It'll be a tough sell in the divided Legislature, to say the least. But the DFL governor said he'd built up the political capital needed to make that proposal a reality.

"Minnesotans spoke loudly in November; they want action, and that’s what I intend to deliver," Walz said.

He and his commissioners this week fanned out across the state to start building popular support for the plan.

Republican leaders, meanwhile, started a campaign to brand the plan "One Expensive Minnesota," a riff on Walz's campaign mantra. And a key GOP leader said he'd keep his caucus united against the proposed tax and fee hikes.

“We have a $1.5 billion surplus, maybe it will be less, but that certainly is a number that we can work to have a good budget that addresses the needs of all of Minnesota,” Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, said. “That is spending that we think is not wise, so we’re going to fight to say, ‘Let’s stay within the resources we have.'"

Management and Budget Commissioner Myron Frans next week is set to unveil the state's latest revenue forecast, potentially checking some of the governor's plans.

Time is ticking on 'early win'

An effort to let the state accept millions of dollars in federal election funds was supposed to be an "early win" this session, but it ran into trouble this week as different House and Senate versions made their way through the Capitol.

House Democrats said lawmakers should approve a version of the bill that lets the Secretary of State's Office accept the full $6.6 million that the state received through the federal Help America Vote Act (HAVA) in 2018. And lawmakers in that chamber voted 105-23 on Thursday to advance that proposal.

But Republicans, including Gazelka, said the office should get those funds, but not all at once. In a public letter Gazelka penned to House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, the senator said a Senate proposal to green light $1.5 million of that money and set up state funding for a required 5 percent match was a better option.

“The Senate is committed to authorizing the full $6.6 million this session, but only after a robust public discussion and vetting regarding the use of these one-time funds,” he wrote.

The $1.5 million figure came out of a 2018 omnibus spending bill vetoed by then-Gov. Mark Dayton.

Secretary of State Steve Simon this week said that amount is what was needed to beef up election security for the 2018 midterm election. But ahead of the 2020 presidential election cycle, the threats have become more serious, he said, and the full $6.6 million fund should be available to increase security efforts.

“Minnesota now has a target on its back; we are the only state not to get this money,” Simon said.

Lawmakers aim to enshrine gun rights in state Constitution

And GOP lawmakers took aim at so-called "red flag" gun proposals, saying they'd start a separate push to explicitly guarantee the federal right to bear arms in the Minnesota Constitution.

A coalition of House Republicans known as the New House Republican Caucus, along with a couple other GOP lawmakers, said they'd push to get the language mirroring the U.S. Constitution added to the Minnesota Constitution.

Members said they brought the proposal to fend off efforts to curtail Minnesotans' right to bear arms.

"We have people in our districts that are communicating to us constantly that they feel that this right of theirs is under threat both at the state and federal level," Rep. Tim Miller, R- Prinsburg, said. "So we need to put this assurance in the Constitution, and we need to speak very clearly to those people who are showing these concerns that we're going to take a stand against what we see coming through the Legislature."