ST. PAUL — The clock ticked down and the path to passing top legislative priorities remained unclear Friday, May 15, as Minnesota lawmakers entered the final 48 hours to get bills across the finish line.
In a bonding year, it still wasn't clear that the Legislature would pass a bonding bill.
Leaders in the divided statehouse disagreed about whether they should ratify state worker contracts given the state's projected $2.4 billion budget deficit.
Plans for the next phase of COVID-19 aid to help pay rent, build-out broadband and small business loans were still in negotiations.
And Republicans in the Senate sought to take part of their remaining time to make sure they'd be a check on the governor's executive powers in addressing coronavirus response after they left St. Paul.
Lawmakers have until midnight Sunday, May 17, to wrap up their business for the 2020 legislative session. Here's what they still have to resolve before time runs out.
Bonding bill or no bonding bill?
Legislative leaders and the governor said they were in closed negotiations to write a bonding bill, though details about the proposal had not yet been made public.
The House was set to take up a vote on a bonding bill Saturday on the floor despite comments from House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, days earlier suggesting the minority caucus would block the proposal after Walz extended the state's peacetime emergency and by extension, his broader authority to issue orders.
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, on Friday said he was confident the measure would pass this weekend and he noted the estimated price tag was above $1 billion. Walz and House Speaker Melissa Hortman, D-Brooklyn Park, also said they were hopeful the bill would pass before time ran out on the legislative session.
“I’m absolutely committed to getting a bonding bill done. I hope it gets done this session,” Gazelka said. “We’ll know by Sunday night if it happens.”
Lawmakers could be called back for at least one special session in June to consider an extension of the state's peacetime emergency and they could pass a bonding bill then if they can't reach an agreement this weekend.
But legislative leaders advocated for approving one and giving communities and construction workers a game plan sooner.
“If we fall down on that job, then the impact hits the communities, so for us to step up to our end of the bargain and meet those unmet needs is really important,” Hortman said.
Gazelka said legislative leaders were also prioritizing a tax bill, which could help more Republican lawmakers get on-board with supporting a bonding proposal.
A push to reopen state worker contracts
With two days left in the legislative session, Republicans and Democrats were in gridlock about approving state employees' contracts.
Gov. Tim Walz's administration and 11 labor unions representing state employees struck a deal on the contracts last year that included a 2.25% increase starting last summer and a 2.5% boost beginning in July. About 50,000 public employees were set to be impacted by the decisions.
GOP leaders in the Senate, as well as in the House, said the state should renegotiate the contracts as the state faces a projected $2.4 billion deficit in the state's two-year $48 billion spending plan.
“When these contracts were negotiated, we were in the best of times economically,” Sen. Mark Koran, R-North Branch, said, as a Senate panel took up a proposal to renegotiate the contracts Wednesday. “Now we’re in the worst of times, only to be topped by the Great Depression.”
The state has begun freezing nonessential hires to close the forecast budget hole and state commissioners and the governor took a 10% pay cut. The freeze on state hiring was expected to save the state $100 million through July of 2021.
The Minnesota House of Representatives on Monday approved the contracts despite concerns from GOP lawmakers and one DFLer about the impact of the raises to the state budget.
And Walz on Friday said he had no plan to reopen the contract negotiations.
“I’m certainly not going to negotiate them on my own or ask the Legislature to do that. They were agreed upon," Walz said. "The negotiation of a contract has nothing to do with a bonding bill, it has nothing to do with a tax bill, it is a separate issue."
Emergency powers hit a nerve
Meanwhile, Republican state senators questioned whether Walz has held too much unilateral power during the pandemic response and passed a bill Friday to require more input from the state’s politically divided Legislature.
Walz signed his first peacetime emergency declaration on March 13, allowing himself the constitutional authority to make quick decisions in response to the pandemic, without needing concurrence with all 201 state legislators. Two months later, GOP legislators said they should get more of a say in additional extensions.
“How long is it an emergency?” asked Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, said. “Is it 30 days, then another 30 days, then another 30 days? Is there no check, is there no balance to this power?”
The question legislative Republicans are asking is whether Walz, along with his executive council, should have the authority to extend the length of his emergency declaration, and therefore his ability to make executive orders without legislators' approval.
Senate Democrats on Friday retorted that the Legislature does already have a say: If they think Walz is out of line, the state House and Senate can decide by a majority vote to overrule his declaration. But requiring legislative approval before emergency powers go into place could delay and politicize the process, defeating the point of fast-acting emergency powers.
Sen. Nick Frentz, D-North Mankato, said the proposal allows “a single chamber to hold a state of emergency hostage.” He likened the bill to asking a firefighter to save a burning building, then requiring the firefighter to convene 201 legislators for majority approval before helping.
The bill’s primary author Sen. David Osmek, R-Mound, said he agreed that coronavirus was an emergency back in March when Walz issued his first declaration, but said, “After a certain length of time, I do start to question why we would not move back to a regular, normal state of government operations.”
Legislators are also at odds about the governor's authority to allocate federal coronavirus response funds. The Senate voted to require additional oversight over how federal relief funds to the state is spent. But the DFL-led House has said an existing council of legislative leaders who weigh in on purchases over $1 million is sufficient.
Another round of COVID-19 aid
The House and Senate each advanced plans for their next priorities for COVID-19 aid including housing assistance, funding to boost broadband and dull the financial pain felt by small businesses, but they hadn't yet stuck agreements on dollar amounts or exactly what that package would look like.
Gazelka and Walz on Friday said legislative leaders were still in negotiations about the next round of aid but had similar aims and felt confident they would get a package approved this weekend.
Lawmakers could also approve COVID-19 relief during a special legislative session slated for June 12.