$4.7 billion budget deficit, a pandemic-induced recession and redistricting await 2021 Legislature

Republicans, DFL sketch out vastly different priorities for consequential Legislature in 2021

The Minnesota State Capitol. Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

Amid the backdrop of a once-in-a-century pandemic, all 201 legislative districts will be on the November ballot, and they’ll have just as much — if not more — impact on the lives of Minnesotans than the more widely discussed presidential election.

Here are some of the issues lawmakers will be addressing next year, with widely divergent paths depending on whether the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party or the Republicans control the Legislature: 

  • Your kid’s school funding; 
  • your income, sales and property tax bill; 
  • paid leave at your job; 
  • availability of affordable child care; 
  • response to the pandemic, including policies like mask mandates, business closures and the governor’s powers during the outbreak; 
  • the rules police have to abide by in your community; 
  • the rebuilding of neighborhoods in Minneapolis and St. Paul destroyed by arson; 
  • legal cannabis; 
  • how difficult it will be to sue your employer if you experience sexual harassment at work; 
  • the fate of a major pipeline, mines and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness; 
  • voting rights for felons under state supervision; 
  • drivers licenses for undocumented immigrants; 
  • the rights and duties of gun owners and dealers;
  • and the congressional and legislative district map we’ll live with for the next decade.   

And it’s all going to happen during a budget crisis. Lawmakers will have to figure out how to plug a $2.34 billion budget hole in the current fiscal year, which ends June 30, 2021. On top of that, lawmakers will also be debating a new two-year budget. Government forecasters are already projecting a $4.7 billion budget deficit for the following two years.

Tax increases are on the table, though DFL Gov. Tim Walz and DFL lawmakers have not specified what taxes they might propose to help balance the state’s budget. Republicans will try to stop them in any case. State leaders will have some financial cushion to help weather the fiscal challenges: a $2.4 billion rainy-day fund and a $350 million cash-flow account. 

Redistricting, a once-in-a-decade process to redraw legislative and congressional maps by February 2022, promises to also be a politically-bruising fight. Faster growing urban areas will gain political power, while many rural areas are expected to lose it; redrawing legislative and congressional maps are a key way political parties influence the balance of statehouse and congressional representation, oftentimes sparking legal challenges.  

The Reformer spoke with political leaders and strategists to see what priorities are likely to shape next year, depending on whether Republicans are able to hold their Minnesota Senate majority and reclaim the House. Alternatively, the DFL hopes to once again control all of state government, as it did in 2013-14 when it controlled both Minnesota legislative chambers and the governorship. 

Republican priorities

If Republicans control one or both chambers of the Legislature, they will be mostly limited to stymying DFL Gov. Tim Walz’s agenda going into his 2022 reelection.

But they will also offer a robust agenda of their own, said Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, who is on the GOP team working to take back the House.

Republicans are pushing to remove barriers to precious metal mining and the Enbridge Line 3 pipeline in northern Minnesota, a $2.6 billion replacement oil pipeline that would create thousands of construction jobs but is opposed by environmentalists and some tribes. Senate Republicans recently ousted Commerce Commissioner Steve Kelley, in part because his agency sued to prevent the pipeline from moving forward. 

Minnesota Republicans, supported by some Iron Range DFLers, also support the approval of the Twin Metals copper-nickel mine near the Boundary Water Canoe Area Wilderness. 

On the education front, Republicans are looking at a proposal by Minneapolis Federal Reserve President Neel Kashkari and retired state Supreme Court Justice Alan Page — the latter a Democrat, the former a Republican — to amend the state’s constitution with language they say would guarantee a quality education for all children

The constitutional amendment effort has also drawn the support of a small group DFLers, namely some members of the House People of Color and Indigenous caucus. Education Minnesota, the statewide teachers union and strong DFL ally, opposes the effort.

Their proposal would replace language in the Minnesota Constitution requiring the Legislature “establish a general and uniform system of public schools” with a clause stating that “all children have a fundamental right to a quality public education” and that it is the “paramount duty of the state” to fulfill this right.

When it comes to criminal justice issues, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, has firmly stated his opposition to measures like recreational marijuana, as well as any efforts by DFL lawmakers to curtail police departments. His caucus has instead called for money to hire more police officers, particularly in Minneapolis and St. Paul. 

Following the police killing of George Floyd, Senate Republicans held hearings to examine the state’s response to the civil unrest, looting and arson that leveled dozens of small businesses in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Featuring testimony from law enforcement officials — including Minneapolis police union leaders — Republicans expressed support for police officers’ actions in managing the unrest.

Also expect Republicans to continue to seek to wrest pandemic peacetime emergency powers from Walz, who has been reupping them every 30 days since March. 

But it’s unlikely any of the Republicans’ major priorities will make it into law because Walz will be there to block them. 

In fact, it’s not hard to imagine what state government will look like if Republicans control at least one chamber of the Legislature: Minnesota has had a DFL governor and at least one GOP chamber since 2015. 

The result has been highly partisan gridlock. 

Charlie Weaver, executive director of the Minnesota Business Partnership, which represents the largest companies in the state like Target, 3M and Cargill, said Minnesota would be better off with the divided government on offer from legislative Republicans: “One party control, in my view, is not healthy,” he said. “It’s not healthy for good government. I mean, no one has a corner on good ideas. Neither party, no person has all the answers.”

DFL priorities

The House DFL has already laid out much of their agenda after they took the majority in 2018, introducing and passing a number of bills that were not taken up or were voted down by the GOP-controlled Senate.

If they’re victorious in November, expect quick action, said House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley. “I think if we govern the way we should, it should be like (President Franklin Roosevelt’s) 100 Days, where it should just be one major piece of legislation after another to lay the foundation for future growth, equity and community safety and health around the state,” he said. 

The House passed a gas tax increase to fund roads and bridges and a metro sales tax increase for transit; increased school and university funding significantly; and passed a paid family leave bill that would tax employers and employees and then pay workers for time off for health and family reasons like a new baby.

They’d also likely approve a public health insurance option. Winkler introduced a comprehensive plan to legalize cannabis. 

A DFL Legislature would also return to police and criminal justice reform after lawmakers passed and Walz signed a modest set of changes like banning chokeholds. They would also seek to restore voting rights to felons still under state supervision and approve the issuance of drivers license for undocumented immigrants. 

If the election tips the balance of the Legislature toward full DFL control, Winkler said House DFLers will likely be able to make good on a number of unfinished legislative items.

“We’re focused on core things like paid family and medical leave, health insurance that is affordable for people, creating jobs and supporting local communities,” he said. “We have a significant equity agenda on various things from driver’s licenses, to health inequities and disparities that we need to attack, (as well as) education disparities, and continued work and police reform and accountability.”

DFL Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent, who is hoping to lead her caucus to a majority, will have much less room to maneuver. (And she faces a tough re-election of her own against former Woodbury Mayor Mary Giuliani Stephens.) Currently facing a 35-32 deficit, the Senate DFL is likely to be nursing a narrow majority if they win the November election. Kent was largely noncommittal about specific policies, except for a few that House DFLers have already approved, including paid family leave. 

“It is not up to those of us who are in the 91st Legislature to determine what the agenda is going to be for the members of the Senate DFL caucus in the 92nd Legislature,” Kent said. “There are a lot of specifics here that, out of respect for that future caucus, I think it’s important that we wait and let that group of people have those conversations.”

Kent said Senate DFLers are likely to support legislation to combat workplace sexual harassment, as well as efforts to improve the racial diversity of the state’s teaching corps. On legalizing recreational marijuana, Kent said her caucus would commit to holding hearings on the topic and seek input from the public. 

Garofalo said the election will come down to suburban voters.

These voters, he said, are “pragmatic.” Discussing police reform, he said these suburban voters “want to see things improved and changed (with police departments). They don’t want to burn it down.”