The Potluck

4 days left to finalize a $52 billion budget, but ‘working groups’ meet largely out of public view

By: - May 24, 2021 2:15 pm

The Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul as the sun sets on Election Day, November 3, 2020. Photo by Tony Webster.

Just four days remain for lawmakers to finalize a $52 billion budget, at least according to a deadline DFL Gov. Tim Walz and legislative leaders announced last week.

For the most part, insofar as any decisions are being made, they are happening behind closed doors. 

On the last day of the legislative session, the governor and leaders of Minnesota’s divided Legislature announced a broad “numbers only” budget deal that they intend to approve in a special legislative session by June 14. Lawmakers have to pass a new two-year budget by June 30, or the state government will begin to shut down non-essential services.

It’s not clear how lawmakers will reach agreement on billions of dollars in new spending, while settling thorny policy debates that could yet still derail the tentative agreement. 

Usually, conference committees are formed to help bridge gaps between House and Senate bills, with members from both the House and Senate appointed to these committees who then produce a compromise bill brought to votes in their respective chambers. The adjournment of the regular legislative session has dissolved these conference committees.

Legislative leaders say those committees will be reconstituted as more informal “working groups” that do not have to abide by the same public meeting rules that govern most legislative proceedings. 

“I really feel like this session has been difficult enough with not being able to meet in person,” said State Sen. Karla Bigham, DFL-Cottage Grove. “This really took that even a step further from transparency. It’s concerning and I’m hopeful that chairs or leads of these working groups will somehow someway make it possible for some public viewing or testimony.”

State Sen. Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul, also criticized the lack of public meetings, saying in a tweet on Monday: “There’s ONE public hearing dealing with the $52 billion dollar state budget negotiations expected to wrap on Friday. Minnesotans are locked out. It’s wrong.”

The frustration over the process is bipartisan.

State Rep. Kristin Robbins, R-Maple Grove, said she is frustrated at the lack of communication over the process, saying that it’s unclear who has even been appointed to the working groups and under what statutory authority.

“I’m trying to raise public awareness about the true process problems that i think really are detrimental,” she said, adding that she made note of the issues in her newsletter to constituents. “It’s about the process and what this is doing to democracy and how we are eroding transparency… Somehow a budget will appear that no one will have voted on. I find that really disheartening as a member.”

State Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, said that so far, the working group that is debating a new public safety budget bill has not yet met. 

Mariani said that House members have discussed  some of their policy proposals with law enforcement representatives in a “long — and mostly amicable — meeting” on Monday morning. It was not open to the public. 

A House DFL spokesman said working group meetings will be livestreamed. As of Monday, only the health and human services working group has scheduled a meeting, and none others yet appear on the legislative calendar for the rest of the week. 

A Senate GOP spokeswoman did not respond to a request seeking comment about the process. 

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said last week that negotiations would take place between working groups and between chairs, much like the conference committee process has played out. 

He said that with budget targets in hand, the work will be focused heavily on the budget and that debates over policy that don’t get resolved by June 4 will be jettisoned. 

“There are a lot of policy provisions that boths sides are not going to agree on, and in the end, we are going to be throwing those overboard, getting the budgets done and the resources available for people,” Gazelka said during the last day of the session. 

In a video released on Monday, Gazelka struck an assertive tone, saying Senate Republicans would continue fighting for their policy goals during the working group process, including Voter ID, resisting “anti-police” reforms and rolling back new car emission standards.

Senate Republicans had previously threatened to hold up the budget for the Department of Natural Resources — which funds state parks and manages the state’s forestry, water and ecological resources — over the Walz administration’s push to implement new car emission standards modeled after California.

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Ricardo Lopez
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.