ST. PAUL — Deal or no deal?
That question was asked — presumably — as Minnesota legislative leaders and the governor continued closed-door budget negotiations for a fifth day on Friday, May 17.
With just over 72 hours left to wrap up the legislative session on time, House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, and Gov. Tim Walz insisted they were getting closer to a deal but offered few details about their talks.
Meanwhile, legislators outside the room prepared for a special session or standoff that could lead to a government shutdown. Senate Republicans pushed a proposal to keep the lights on in state government if leaders couldn't agree, citing an "impasse" in the negotiating room.
Lawmakers have until midnight on Monday to finish their business, including writing a two-year budget that is set to top $48 billion. And prior to heading into the talks, they had fundamentally different ideas about what the spending bill should look like.
Democrats proposed boosting the tax on gasoline to fund road and bridge repairs. And they said a 2% percent tax on health care providers that funds health care for children, elderly and disabled people as well as low-income people should remain in place. It is set to expire this year without legislative action.
Republicans meanwhile oppose the tax increase and continuation and say taxpayers shouldn't be asked to pay more at the gas pump or on their medical bills. And they say a $1 billion budget surplus along with existing revenue should be enough to cover funding for the next two years.
Around $2 billion separated their spending plans going into the talks, but after five days of private meetings, it's unclear where they stand now. Legislators have referred to the conversations as occurring in the "cone of silence."
“The negotiations have been honorable and professional. The fact that there’s not a lot of chatter outside of what’s going on there I think has been very good,” Gazelka said Friday. “I think we all want to figure out a way through."
Gazelka said he remained hopeful that lawmakers could complete their work on time. And while the trio of leaders initially planned to appear on a public television show Friday evening, they canceled the appearance to press on with negotiations.
The Minnesota Senate Finance Committee on Thursday voted to advance a resolution that would set in place a backup plan to fund state government slightly above existing levels if the leaders can't reach an agreement before July 1. Supporters said it was key to have a contingency plan to prevent a government shutdown.
Opponents, meanwhile, said lawmakers are expected to get their work done and the proposal would take the heat off them to pass a budget. And House DFL leaders said that chambers would be unlikely to support it as it doesn't fund schools or health care programs at a rate they view as appropriate.
"I don't think it's a 'lights on' bill," House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, said Friday night on TPT Almanac. "It's the Senate budget bill."