Amid partisan bickering, Walz meeting with lawmakers to close the deal

    The quadriga horses at the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul, Minnesota. Photo by Tony Webster.

    Gov. Tim Walz will meet with lawmakers Thursday to resume negotiations on a range of issues just days before a planned special legislative session — amid a grim countdown to July 1, when state government will shut down without a budget deal.

    The GOP-controlled Senate and the Democratic-majority House have sent a bevy of press releases and held dualing news conferences in recent days. Monday, it was education. Tuesday, public safety. Wednesday, they debated housing.

    Public partisan bickering at this stage of negotiations is often a sign the two sides remain far apart. There’s no agreement yet on contentious issues like the education budget, proposals for police reform, the eviction moratorium and the DFL governor’s emergency powers.

    A Walz administration source remained confident that a skeletal agreement agreed to last month — and a forceful hand by Walz and legislative leaders — would push through a deal before the deadline.

    Lawmakers finalized a two-year, $3.5 billion deal Wednesday to fund higher education for the next two years. It’s a $100 million increase over and above what’s known around the Capitol as “base funding,” or expected increases from inflation and enrollment increases. The Star Tribune reported the deal also included an automatic admission program for some high school seniors to certain institutions in the Minnesota State system.

    Higher education is often one of the first budgets to be finished; the college and university systems traditionally enjoy bipartisan support and comprise a relatively small share of the total two-year state budget, which is expected to hit $52 billion.

    Emergency powers conflict continues

    Even as the danger of COVID-19 has receded, Walz has continued to extend the peacetime emergency because doing so gives the administration the authority to spend freely on COVID-19 testing and vaccines and enables Minnesota to receive federal food aid. Minnesota Republicans have demanded for a year that Walz end his peacetime emergency.

    For some right wing activists, however, Republican efforts to stop Walz’s emergency powers are insufficient. A group called Action4Liberty is organizing a rally Monday to protest Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, state government’s most powerful Republican.

    An email that went out Tuesday advertising the protest called Gazelka a “weakling” for “standing in the way of passing the most important legislation of our time.”

    The email continued: “We just went through 452 days of Unilateral Emergency Powers by Governor Walz. What could be more important?”

    Gazelka released a statement Wednesday again calling on Walz to relinquish his powers: “It is time for all of us to return to normal, but we can’t do that until Gov. Walz gives up his emergency powers,” he said. “There is simply no reason for Gov. Walz to continue his one-man rule.”

    ESAs are DOA

    Senate Republicans will hold a news conference on the Capitol steps Thursday urging Walz to meet with parent advocates of so-called education savings accounts. Senate Republicans have proposed that families who send their children to private school receive money for education expenses including tuition, with the funding provided by the students’ local school district.

    For Democrats, it’s a nonstarter because it siphons money from local public schools and is opppsed by their close ally, Education Minnestoa.

    J. Patrick Coolican
    J. Patrick Coolican is Editor-in-Chief of Minnesota Reformer. Previously, he was a Capitol reporter for the Minneapolis Star Tribune for five years, after a Knight-Wallace Fellowship at the University of Michigan and time at the Las Vegas Sun, Seattle Times and a few other stops along the way. He lives in St. Paul with his wife and toddler son.