Lawmakers, returning and newly-elected, convened in St. Paul Tuesday to kick off a five-month legislative session. A lengthy to-do list awaits them. Their chief assignment: Passing a new two-year budget.
Legislators will have some flexibility after a better-than-expected December budget forecast found a surplus in the current biennium, ending June 30. After approving a COVID-19 economic relief package last month, the current biennium has a $393 million surplus and lawmakers have to close a $883 million deficit. Still available to tap: a $1.8 billion budget reserve.
Minnesota’s budget picture may improve if Congress votes to pass another COVID-19 relief package with money for state and local governments. To date, efforts by Democrats to help state governments have been stymied, but Georgia’s run-off election on Tuesday for its two Senate seats could tip the balance in favor of Democrats, with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris casting the deciding vote if the chamber is split 50-50.
Some takeaways from Day One.
Legislature working largely remotely
The seven special legislative sessions held last year were short affairs, typically a day long. But this year, lawmakers will be in session for nearly five months, adjourning for the year on May 17, that is assuming they pass a budget by then.
The DFL-led House, led by Speaker Melissa Hortman, will conduct its business entirely remotely this year. “By operating remotely, things will look different, things will feel different,” she said Tuesday. “The pandemic has certainly changed everything about our day-to-day operations and at work and at school for all of us. But my hope is that the results will be similar to what we saw in the last biennium.”
The Senate, meanwhile, is aiming for a mix of in-person and virtual meetings this year, including online options that will allow for greater participation from people who are not able to attend proceedings at the Capitol. The GOP-led Senate recently experienced a COVID-19 outbreak, which sickened at least four senators, as well as staff. Sen. Jerry Relph of St. Cloud died of COVID-19 last month after his caucus hosted an in-person post-election victory party at a Lake Elmo venue.
House debates to proceed more briskly with fingerprint voting technology
House votes were often excruciatingly long last year with so many members voting remotely. Hortman said the House will debut a new voting platform, which will use fingerprint technology to allow all 134 members to vote simultaneously. She lamented that the lengthy roll calls will go away, saying they served as “an adult timeout” in between heated debates.
Klobuchar looms large in Senate
Senate Republicans took an unusual step on Tuesday, voting to name Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, Senate president pro tempore, a role he will fill alongside Sen. Jeremy Miller, R-Winona, who was named acting Senate president. Tomassoni and Miller will share duties, a decision motivated by Majority Leader Paul Gazelka’s desire to protect his majority.
Gazelka explained that he is worried that if U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar is appointed to President-elect Joe Biden’s cabinet, it would create a vacancy. He fears Gov. Tim Walz would fill it by appointing Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, who on Tuesday presided over the election of Senate officers and was in the chamber during his remarks. If that happens, the Minnesota Constitution calls for the Senate president — i.e. Miller — to be elevated to lieutenant governor, creating a vacancy in his Winona-area seat that Republicans fear they could lose in a special election.
Gazelka defended the decision, saying his caucus consulted with nonpartisan staff and determined Miller and Tomassoni can serve simultaneously “for a period of time.” Senate Democrats decried the move, criticizing it as a political maneuver intended to disrupt Senate operations for Republicans’ gain.
Lt. Gov. Flanagan/DFL senator chide senators for lax COVID-19 procedures
It’s not yet been three weeks since Senate Republicans lost a member of their caucus to COVID-19, but still, some members chose not to wear masks on the Senate floor. During voting on the resolution to name Miller and Tomassoni, Flanagan chided senators for crowding the floor. (The lieutenant governor presides over officer elections until a president is determined and who then takes over floor proceedings.)
“There are too many people in this room,” she said. “It may not surprise you that I am the person asking you to create a little social distance.” Flanagan lost a brother to the disease early in the pandemic.
Sen. Matt Klein, DFL-Mendota Heights, briefly criticized his colleagues for not wearing masks on the floor. Klein, a physician at Hennepin County Medical Center, said senators should know better, particularly after Relph’s death. “It will be taken as a sign of disrespect should this continue,” Klein said.
Emergency powers to be debated
Legislative Republicans have continued to hammer at DFL Gov. Tim Walz over his use of emergency powers to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. Senate Republicans have called on him to roll back his restrictions on businesses, saying his last-minute decisions on restrictions make it harder for businesses to plan ahead.
House GOP Minority Leader Kurt Daudt of Crown on Tuesday said his caucus takes the pandemic seriously, but nonetheless, “We also do want to restore the Legislature to its status as a co-equal branch of government, and we want to work with the governor in the response to COVID and make sure that our constituents can have their voice heard by testifying and communicating with their members in the House of Representatives.”