ST. PAUL — Minnesota lawmakers will push into overtime to wrap up key business of the 2020 legislative session including borrowing to fund construction projects around the state and approving another round of COVID-19 aid.
The clock ran out for the Minnesota Legislature late Sunday, May 18, before they could wrap up priorities. And legislative leaders on Monday committed to putting politics aside ahead of an anticipated special session next month.
The coronavirus pandemic largely defined the legislative session, forcing lawmakers to quickly pivot to appropriate resources for the Department of Health, hospitals, COVID-19 tests, ventilators and other preparations. And it cut into prime dealmaking time at the Capitol, delaying agreements on a borrowing bill, tax relief plan for those affected by the pandemic, guidelines for how the state should use federal COVID-19 relief funds and raising questions about the fate of state worker contracts.
As the pandemic struck Minnesota, lawmakers in the divided Legislature came together to quickly approve more than $550 million in funding to combat the coronavirus and to help the state build up the capacity to test and treat those sickened.
They also struck deals to ensure uninsured or low-income diabetics can access insulin, banned sales of tobacco to those under 21, outlawed the chemical trichloroethylene (TCE) and created a drug transparency program aimed at bringing down the price of prescription drugs.
But that bipartisanship frayed as Republicans grew frustrated at the governor's broad powers and his directives that kept businesses and houses of worship shuttered longer than they felt was sustainable.
A push for the governor to drop the state's peacetime authority and some of his executive powers derailed a bonding bill in the House of Representatives. And a standoff over the proper price tag for that plan waged on into the final hours of the legislative session with no solution.
Other key proposals that were tied into a bonding bill negotiation also fell by the wayside as lawmakers failed to find a suitable compromise.
“The pandemic kind of reached in and grabbed the heart of the legislative session out,” House Speaker Melissa Hortman, D-Brooklyn Park, said, noting that lawmakers were outside the Capitol for five weeks that are typically the Legislature's busiest. “So while we did some really good work this session on COVID-19, the regular work, the bonding bill didn’t get done in time.”
The pandemic forced lawmakers, lobbyists, members of the public and others out of the Capitol temporarily and the Legislature had to move to hold exclusively virtual hearings, a new process that took time and wasn't always effective or transparent.
With time lost and many of the typical factors of the last night of legislative session absent, leaders said they felt less pressure to finalize plans to put more than a billion dollars toward public construction projects, decisions on how to allocate $1.87 billion in federal COVID-19 response funds and approvals for state worker contracts.
“It’s a difficult process. Add COVID and Zoom and not being able to get together with each other makes it extremely difficult,” Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said. "All of those things that you normally feel that built the pressure were not there, it was quiet."
Bonding, COVID response on hold
On Saturday, the GOP majority in the Senate put forth a $998 million proposal to fund public construction projects. Democrats said the bill wasn't big enough and its projects weren't adequately spread around the state. And in the House, where the DFL majority put up a $2 billion plan, Republicans said the price tag was too high given the state's current finances.
Legislative leaders got closer to a bonding bill total that could be considered "just right" by all parties involved but failed to reach a compromise in time to pass it before the clock struck midnight.
“The reality is the Democrats tried to pass a bonding bill in the House that was twice as big as has ever been passed in Minnesota and Republicans didn’t support it,” House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said.
Gov. Tim Walz on Monday said he and DFL leaders had extended olive branches to Daudt and his caucus to win him over on the House bonding plan, but Daudt wasn't willing to bend.
“Unfortunately this time, the choice was to tie it to pandemic response,” Walz told reporters. “My disappointment (is) that the bonding bill apparently became victim to an unrelated demand. (That) simply isn’t the way to get this done.”
In the Senate, Democrats said they'd felt a compromise emerging but were surprised to see a $998 million plan Sunday night.
“You can’t just talk about it in the broad strokes. The bonding bill is a complex, big lift of important local projects and we didn’t see the Senate Republicans’ bill until the day before adjournment," Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent, D-Woodbury, said. “It did not measure up to what we need to do in this time."
Disagreements over state workers' contracts negotiated last year spurred a disagreement between the House and Senate. The House ratified the contracts that included raises for state workers while the Senate passed them with a condition that salary increases slated for July be removed (at least for now).
Minnesota Management and Budget Commissioner Myron Frans on Monday said he was reviewing the law around the contracts and whether the Senate's vote counted as a decision to approve the contracts. He said he would have more answers later this week.
Work left for June special session
Legislative leaders and the governor said they expected a bonding bill between $1.1 billion and $1.35 billion would pass in a special session next month. Walz's peacetime emergency is set to end June 12 without extension and the governor has said it will be his commitment to calling lawmakers in to take up the executive order and other business at that time.
While the peacetime emergency cratered negotiations so far, Daudt said he felt confident that lawmakers will face a different landscape by then.
“We’re going to have three weeks to work on things and hopefully we can come together on a bunch of issues and pass a bonding bill,” Daudt said. “I think most businesses will be open by that time, I think we’re hopeful that all businesses will be open by that time and I think things will look different.”
DFL lawmakers held out hope that the special session could offer a venue to approve reimbursement rate increases for child care providers and a $500 one-time payment for families on the Minnesota Family Investment Program. They also said they'd continue a push for housing assistance for those affected by the pandemic.
Republicans said a deal over a tax bill tied to a bonding proposal seemed to have support to pass in a special session as did $62.5 million in grants for small businesses. The tax proposal would delay filing deadlines for business owners and Section 179 conformity. They've also advanced funding for affordable housing with provisions that would ease regulations for homebuilding.