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MN Capitol Notebook: Marathon floor sessions make way for the session's biggest debates

Minnesota Capitol. Forum News Service

ST. PAUL -- Minnesota lawmakers spent days debating large funding proposals this week, with the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives and GOP-led Senate passing very different plans for how the state should spend almost $50 billion over the next two years.

A new report provided fodder for lawmakers fighting against tax hikes proposed by the governor's office.

And after months of attempted negotiations to use federal funding to boost election security, a GOP senator said she would dig in to get the deal she wanted.

Lawmakers returned from their Easter/Passover break this week to marathon floor sessions to pass budget bills. Ahead of a May 1 deadline to get them ready for negotiations, members of the House and Senate spent long hours, including late nights, arguing over dozens of amendments and casting votes on a set of spending bills.

The approval of the budget bills sets the table in the next three weeks for legislative leaders and Gov. Tim Walz to enter negotiations over what will make it and what will be cut from the state budget.

Leaders in the nation's only divided Legislature sit on either side of a $2 billion split over how much the state should spend. And they disagree on key issues like whether to raise taxes to fund a boost to education or repairs to roads and bridges or to keep them flat.

As the clock ticks down, here's a look at what happened this week at the Capitol.

Floor sessions stretch on as deadline looms

One-by-one, the House and Senate debated and voted on large spending bills set to be considered as part of the state budget in the coming weeks. In a series of hours-long hearings, each chamber approved the proposals which are set to move to conference committees next week after the May 1 deadline.

And that's where the real work will start as leaders have to strike compromises over what will make it into the two-year spending plan.

While they continued to stand divided on some of the biggest issues in those proposals, House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, and Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, said they were still working well together and expected to get a budget done in time, avoiding a special session or government shutdown.

"Don’t look for kumbaya every minute of every day here," Hortman said. "There is supposed to be conflict; there is supposed to be strong disagreement, but I think just because you see that in the floor debate in both the House and the Senate does not bode ill for our future negotiations.”

Tax plans (and their impacts) come into view

A state analysis this week showed that a Walz administration tax plan would hit low-income Minnesotans harder than other groups.

The Minnesota Department of Revenue on Tuesday issued a report that showed Walz's tax plan, which includes a 20-cent-per-gallon gasoline tax hike, retention of a two-percent medical provider tax and adjustments to state income tax rates would have an outsized impact on some of the state's lowest wage earners.

Minnesotans that make $14,528 or less would see an 8.57 percent increase in their tax burden, while those making more than $185,601 would see a 4.39 percent increase, the analysis showed.

Walz's office said the tax increases would help fund E-12 and higher education, repairs to roads and bridges and health and human services programs.

Republicans said the governor's tax plan was the wrong approach and introduced their own plan, which would include no tax hikes and would have no impact on the state general fund. The proposal could also reduce income tax rates for some middle-class earners.

Election security fight stretches on

A Minnesota senator said she'd continue to hold up an effort to release $6.6 million in federal funding to enhance state election security efforts, citing concerns about where the money would go.

Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, chairs the State Government Finance and Policy and Elections Committee and is a former Minnesota secretary of state. She said this week that she's not seen enough detail about how the Secretary of State's office would use federal Help Amerca Vote Act (HAVA) funds and felt that office had taken an "all-or-nothing approach."

“I found that in the information we had to date, there was a lot lacking," Kiffmeyer told reporters on Thursday. "We had more questions."

Minnesota is the only state that has not gained access to federal funding, which is earmarked for election cybersecurity. The Minnesota House gave the green light for the state to accept the whole $6.6 million figure and the Minnesota Senate approved allowing the state to take $1.5 million.

Republican senators this week skipped a conference committee meeting to iron out the differences between the two proposals. And Kiffmeyer this week presented a state government spending bill that put almost $20.5 million toward cybersecurity at various levels but didn't touch on the federal dollars.

Gazelka said he wanted to make sure the plan gets vetted properly and the issue would get ironed out before the end of the legislative session.

“It will get done,” Gazelka said.