ST. PAUL — A trio of legislative leaders on Thursday, June 10, said it would step in to bulldoze through sticking points in Minnesota budget bills that had so far stalled their progress and prevented a timely passage of a $52 billion plan.
Gov. Tim Walz, House Speaker Melissa Hortman, D-Brooklyn Park, and Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said they would meet with legislative working group leaders and commissioners in closed meetings starting Thursday to excise provisions that had spurred partisan divisions.
And they remained hopeful that they could work through the weekend to have bills ready to pass in a Monday, June 14, special session.
Lawmakers closed out the 2021 regular legislative session last month without a two-year budget plan and now they face a June 30 deadline to approve one or face a state government shutdown. They'll return to St. Paul Monday to consider extending the state's peacetime emergency for COVID-19 and while they're at the Capitol, they're expected to begin approving pieces of the $52 billion budget.
“We’re going to sit down today, we’re going to work with folks on the sticking points that they have in each of these bills, we’re going to try to find compromises, as a democracy demands and get it done,” Walz told reporters at the Capitol on Thursday. “We’ll try to see if there are compromises to deconflict some of those things and bring in a budget.”
Legislative leaders and the governor last month set out a budget framework to guide working groups in hashing out the details of a state spending plan. But without details, lawmakers in closed-door negotiations split over the best way to fund schools, police, roads and bridges and health care programs.
As of Thursday, three of 14 working groups had wrapped up their work, and just one group, the Higher Education Finance and Policy working group held a public meeting to vet the proposal. Ongoing disagreements over inserting policy changes into the spending proposals held up progress in debates about public safety, environment and state government working groups.
And the Senate GOP lead of the K-12 education working group on Thursday dug in on his commitment to creating Education Savings Accounts that would let parents enroll a student in private or parochial school and have state dollars follow them to help cover their tuition.
"Give us the choice: parental choice," Sen. Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes, said during a Thursday news conference on the Capitol lawn.
Walz and DFL lawmakers have committed to blocking the proposal. And the governor said that plan and others based in partisan ideology would go by the wayside during weekend negotiations.
“We’re going to have to do quite a bit of compromise, there’s probably not going to be a lot of policy changes because those are the sticking points," Walz said, "but as far as the budget numbers go, we’re very close. We should be able to lock it up."
On the Republican side, the call to drop policy provisions could eliminate a plan to delay the implementation of a Clean Cars vehicle emissions policy and axe a separate pitch to put the state government in charge of historical sites owned by the state. It could also do away with DFL priorities around police accountability and transparency if the measures can't pick up bipartisan support.
"It’s just very difficult when the two sides are very far apart,” Gazelka told Forum News Service on Friday. “It’s never an easy process, but we’re moving along in a way that tells me we’ll get done."
Gazelka last week told reporters that there was no issue over which Senate Republicans would shut down state government. And Hortman and Walz said they felt confident that lawmakers could agree to a budget and policing law changes that would satisfy both parties and prevent a government shutdown.
The Capitol building reopened to the public on Thursday for the first time in 440 days. And a crowd of advocates pushing for the education savings accounts congregated around Walz as he spoke to reporters about budget negotiations and the updated revenue figures and chanted, "We want school choice."
Minnesota lawmakers also learned Thursday that May tax filings came in nearly $1.8 billion higher than projected, a 119% increase from a forecast they'd issued earlier this year. The bump in tax collection dollars came after the state postponed its income tax filing deadline by a month, according to Minnesota Management and Budget.
“It’s gratifying to see that we were able to not have to make false choices between keeping our citizens safe and keeping our economy strong," Walz said. "It gives us that opportunity, looking to the future, to make those investments that make a difference in Minnesota."