Pay raises, COVID-19 economic aid derailed by partisan bickering in Legislature

Photo courtesy of Minnesota History Center.

The clock is once again ticking for Gov. Tim Walz and lawmakers to overcome partisan differences that derailed a number of legislative priorities left undone this week. 

The Legislature adjourned early Monday without reaching compromises on a public infrastructure package, pay raises for more than 50,000 government workers and additional COVID-19 economic aid. 

Minnesotans hoping for help from the state with their rent or mortgage payment will have to wait a few more weeks until lawmakers return to an expected special session, a requirement if Walz is to retain his peacetime emergency powers. Small businesses will also have to wait on any potential tax deferments and waiving of late penalties. 

With some exceptions, the State Capitol has been beset by partisan trench warfare in recent years, the result of voters balancing a DFL governor with a Republican Legislature, or choosing the DFL to control one chamber and the GOP the other. 

But with Minnesota in need of quick action to stop both the spread of the virus and its cascading economic effects, the partisan gridlock is now suddenly a massive liability. Nor is there any indication that the partisan wrangling will get any easier given the oncoming November election, in which all 201 legislative seats are on the ballot. 

Walz, the first-term DFL governor, said Monday in a post-legislative session briefing with DFL legislative leaders that he hoped continued negotiations would result in agreement for a June 12 special session.

While noting some of the early legislative successes, Walz and House Democrats nonetheless criticized House Republicans for blocking an infrastructure package. 

Republican have objected to Walz’s continued use of emergency powers, saying a more collaborative approach would lead to better outcomes. Minnesota has a higher per capita death rate than any of its neighboring states. 

Walz defended the emergency powers as proper. 

“My top priority is the protection of Minnesotans, and these powers that were granted by the legislative process have allowed us to do just exactly that,” Walz said. “Minnesotans are asking us to work together. They’ve been very clear (that) they’re not interested in the partisanship of this.”

At the pandemic’s outset, legislative leaders did not hesitate to authorize the first $500 million in emergency funding, but they later differed in the next phase of how the state should extend aid to Minnesotans. 

From the moment state budget officials projected a $2.4 billion budget deficit and warned that a worsening economic picture potentially lay ahead, legislative leaders charged off in different directions. 

Republicans in recent weeks favored helping small businesses, frequently calling for Walz to rescind his previous stay-at-home orders so Minnesota can return to normal operations.

More pressure came in the form of several protests by hundreds of demonstrators who gathered outside of the governor’s residence and at the Capitol, part of nationwide protests. 

House Democrats have called for ambitious state aid, including $100 million in housing assistance to deal with an expected wave of evictions and foreclosures once a moratorium on them is lifted. Senate Republicans have proposed a smaller package of relief. 

Over the weekend, Gazelka said Republicans would be focused on reducing spending to close the budget gap, which is why they are pressing for government workers to forego planned salary raises. 

Senate Republicans pushed through legislation that modifies state labor contracts to undo planned 2.5% pay raises in July, but leaves in place raises and benefit changes negotiated for the first year of the two-year labor contract. Republicans would restore raises in July 2021 if the state budget swings back to surplus. 

Minnesota Management and Budget Commissioner Myron Frans said Monday that legal counsel is reviewing whether the Senate’s action effectively ratified the contracts with their vote. He said under state law, the Legislature can only approve or reject the contracts — not modify them. 

Frans said his agency would announce a decision within “a day or so.” 

Gazelka disputed that interpretation, raising the prospect of legal action if the administration moves to implement the contracts this summer. 

Ricardo Lopez
Ricardo Lopez is the senior political reporter for the Reformer. Ricardo is not new to Minnesota politics, previously reporting on the Dayton administration and statehouse for The Star Tribune from 2014 to 2017, and the Republican National Convention in 2016. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Los Angeles Times covering the California economy. He's a Las Vegas native who has adopted Minnesota as his home state. In his spare time, he likes to run, cook and volunteer with Save-a-Bull, a Minneapolis dog rescue group.