Time scarce for lawmakers to write budget bills as governor, top leaders set framework

By: - May 16, 2022 1:34 pm

Gov. Tim Walz reacts to the state budget forecast on Dec. 7, 2021. Photo by Ricardo Lopez/Minnesota Reformer

Lawmakers learned late Sunday night they have two days to put the pieces together of a multi-billion dollar spending and tax cut plan, leaving much left to do with little time. 

DFL Gov. Tim Walz, House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park and Senate Majority Leader Jeremy Miller, R-Winona, signed a “broad framework” of their spending plan, casting it as a compromise all sides were happy with, despite unease about details causing further hiccups. 

“We know in our fourth year of divided government, we can make progress,” House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, said during a morning press conference, standing in for Hortman, who has been isolating with COVID-19 and participating in negotiations remotely. 

Because state government is in the middle of its two-year budget cycle, lawmakers didn’t have to pass anything this year, but the agreement appears to provide something for everyone. 

Conversations between the three parties had been steady and ongoing, with little said publicly about what agreements were taking shape. Republicans flocked to Rochester Friday and Saturday for their party’s state convention, but Hortman and Miller spoke Saturday night about the deal, Miller told reporters. 

“We would have preferred to see more tax relief than spending,” Miller said, “but this is a compromise.”

The framework includes: $1 billion for education; $1 billion for health and human services; $450 million for public safety; $1.4 billion for a bonding bill; $4 billion for a tax bill and $4 billion left unspent in case of any future disruptions to the state economy. 

But time will be scarce: With seven days left to bridge vast differences in budget bills from the House DFL and the Senate GOP before the May 23 adjournment, conference committees will have to make quick decisions about what programs end up on the cutting room floor. 

Miller and Winkler said any impasses at the committee level will be kicked up to top leaders and the governor to sort out, similar to how the caucuses worked with the governor’s office during last year’s two-year budget negotiations. 

In an effort to motivate committee chairs, Miller said, “I don’t think anyone wants three or four people making these final decisions.”

Walz spoke on the virtue of compromise, a word that has become politically unpalatable for Democratic and GOP bases. 

Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, cautioned people to expect a difficult few days ahead. 

“We seem to be nibbling on the small things and we haven’t quite figured out what to do with the gorilla in the room,” he said, referring to the larger spending bill Democrats wanted for crime, public safety and crime prevention, while Republicans seek tougher punishments and new mandates on judges and prosecutors. 

The spending on education far exceeds what Senate Republicans wanted to spend, which had been just $32 million. Republicans in the Senate crafted a bill that focused on new literacy rules and funding for a specific reading program. House Democrats wanted to address the funding shortfall — in the hundreds of millions — for special education caused by an unfunded federal mandate that had created financial headaches for school districts. 

Rep. Jim Davnie, DFL-Minneapolis, and Sen. Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes, said the global agreement called for both House Democratic conferees and Senate Republicans to trade simultaneous offers. He alleged Chamberlain violated that agreement by not having an offer ready after House staff worked late Sunday night to prepare one. 

“We have two days to resolve this, and delay is not on the table,” Davnie said, suggesting Chamberlain was negotiating in bad faith. 

Left unclear is the fate of certain top priorities, including Walz’s direct payments to Minnesotans, GOP tax cuts for Social Security income and paid family leave. 

The deal comes just months before the 2022 midterm elections, which feature all 201 legislative seats up for election, as well as Walz, who is seeking a second term. 

Walz demurred when asked if he would be willing to call a special session if lawmakers fall behind on drafting the details of the budget bills they are now assigned to finish. 

“Deadlines are magical,” he said.

Special sessions are typically well choreographed, with a prior agreement on an agenda since, by law, only the governor can call them and only lawmakers can end them.

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