As Lawmakers Take a Holiday Break, Here’s Where Things Stand at the Minnesota Legislature
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka: “Get rest, get refreshed and come back and be ready to wrap it up in that last month to go.” ( Photo by : Peter Callaghan/MinnPost)

As Lawmakers Take a Holiday Break, Here’s Where Things Stand at the Minnesota Legislature

There are stark differences in philosophy and strategy between the DFL-led House and GOP-run Senate, divisions best illustrated by each side’s omnibus spending and policy bills.

As he was sending the Senate off for its Easter/Passover break, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka delivered something of a homily.

After wishing Jews and Christians the best for the two holidays, the Nisswa Republican urged senators to use the week off to “relax and build strength” for the final month of session.

“As we come into those places where we have strong disagreements, just stay in peace, know that we’re going to get to the end, as long as we do it the way that respects each other and doesn’t forget that our goal is to get that budget done.

“Get rest, get refreshed and come back and be ready to wrap it up in that last month to go,” he said of the scheduled April 23 reconvening.

In his typically understated way, Gazelka made it sound almost easy. All the House and Senate have to do, after all, is bring 10 budget omnibus bills to their respective floors for amendment, debate and passage and reach bipartisan agreement on joint financial targets  — the amount of money each is permitted to spend — for each of those bills. Of course, they also have to agree on the hundreds of pages of nuts and bolts — the verbiage and dollar signs that flesh out of those targets — and then pass each of them in identical form from each house.

Oh, right, and do it all by May 20.

Each of those steps, however, will only highlight the stark differences in philosophy and strategy between a House run by the DFL and a Senate run by the GOP, a division most clearly illustrated over the last two weeks by each side’s omnibus spending and policy bills.

Far apart on education spending. And everything else.

Nothing tells the story of where the two parties are at the Capitol better than their plans for education in Minnesota.

DFLers, following Gov. Tim Walz’s lead, are proposing increases in state support for public school districts by 3 percent the first year of the coming biennium, and 2 percent the second year.

This is not only a central campaign promise of Walz, a teacher-turned-congressman-turned governor, it is one of the centerpieces of the DFL’s “Minnesota Values Agenda.” To get there, both the governor and DFL leadership are proposing tax increases of around $1.2 billion.

That budget clashes with a proposed GOP education spending outline that offers school districts annual increases in funding of 0.5 percent each year of the biennium, creating an education budget that is nearly $700 million below what the House is proposing.

But that sort of gap is not unique to education. It recurs in all of the omnibus spending and policy bills.

And those are just the numbers. Inside the omnibus bills are dozens and dozens of policy measures that began life as separate bills but were rolled into much bigger bills. Many of those proposals, in both the House and Senate, are measures that one side wants and the other doesn’t.

Before Gazelka’s parting words last week, DFL leaders held a press conference to complain that their priorities weren’t getting adequate attention in the GOP-controlled Senate. One of those priorities is Walz’s proposal to allow more people to purchase health insurance via the state’s plan for the working poor. He calls it OneCare, a mashup his campaign theme, “One Minnesota,” and the state’s existing program for those with low incomes, MinnesotaCare.

Another priority is paid family leave. The DFL proposal would create a unemployment insurance type plan that would collect premiums from both employers and workers and provide some weekly pay to new parents and to those caring for sick family members.

Neither have gotten hearings in the Senate, said Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook. “Bodies need to hear bills,” he said. “Chairmen owe it to their members. We all paid our 100 bucks and we all have our election certificate, and when a member introduces a bill, they ought to get the courtesy of a hearing.”

The majority doesn’t need to bring minority bills to a vote, Bakk said, just hear them.

One DFL senator, Sen. Matt Little of Lakeville, has never had a hearing on one of his bills. That is possibly because Little is likely to be a target to be unseated by the GOP in the next election, since both of the House seats in his district went strongly for GOP candidates last election.

“The time to get this done is now,” said House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley. “It’s time to start having more public hearings on these issues so we can resolve them with the Minnesota Senate. If we don’t, we’re looking towards an end-of-session gridlock that will be a very bumpy landing at best.”

‘That’s just how it works’

House Deputy Minority Leader Anne Neu, R-North Branch, listened in on the DFL press conference and noted afterward that many GOP bills are not getting hearings in the House.

She said the Senate isn’t working on bills they know they aren’t going to pass. “I don’t see the Senate Republicans ever taking provisions for Minnesota OneCare,” she said. “Those are very controversial.”

Gazelka too seemed unmoved by the complaints. He said there are Senate GOP priorities that haven’t gotten much time in the House. Reinsurance, the current method the state has used to hold down growth in premiums on the individual health insurance market — isn’t favored by the House. Likewise, a ban on abortions after 20 weeks that is included in a Senate health omnibus bill isn’t going to get a hearing in the House, to no one’s surprise.

“The Democrat House is not hearing many Republican bills and the Republican Senate is not hearing many Democrat bills,” he said. The bills each side doesn’t hear “tend to be on the far right of the far left.”

“Some of these things are just going to drift off on both sides,” he said. “That’s just how it works here.”
Speakers at Thursday’s DFL press conference included House Speaker Melissa Hortman, House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, and Sen. Susan Kent.

There are things that do have bipartisan support: responding to the state’s opioid crisis; disaster relief; adding money to the troubled MNLARS auto licensing system. “So lots of things are getting done, but not everything is getting done,” Gazelka said.

But one must-do, the budget, has also drawn criticism from DFLers who  think the GOP is low-balling their starting positions as a bargaining ploy. The Legislature’s budget-making process, especially when control is divided, is based on setting targets. The House and Senate separately divvy up the total amount they want to spend among 10 or so general areas. The committees responsible for those areas decide how to spend each allotment.

It gets complicated, though, when one body wants to spend significantly more than the other. The DFL House is using tax increases to spend more than the GOP, which wants to use current revenue. To make the spread even larger, the GOP isn’t starting with the latest official forecast from February of what the current revenue is; instead, they are using numbers from the budget adopted two years ago as a starting point.

“I cannot remember a time when the bodies roll out their budget they didn’t compare it to the February forecast, current law,” said Bakk, who joined the Legislature in 1995. “Instead they compare it the spending in the biennium we’re in. That is just not accurate.”

That leaves budgets that are so low that even GOP committee chairs have said they wouldn’t vote for them if they were the final deal, mainly because they spend too little.

Winkler, for one, said he thinks it is a bargaining ploy that won’t work. “It is not the Democratic Party’s responsibility alone to fund the core functions of government,” he said. “That is a shared responsibility. If we’re starting from a position where they think they can bring bills to conference that don’t actually do their basic job and that we’re going to negotiate with them to the point of getting them to the middle so that the government stays open, that is a recipe for failure.”

A lot of time left? 

Gazelka didn’t deny that the first budget bills are starting points, but said the numbers weren’t part of an overriding strategy. “I think there’s some truth to the fact that budgets can be a little bit lower or a little higher than where they end up in positioning,” he said. But if it were a ploy, the Senate would have come in even lower, perhaps with a sizable tax cut.

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“But we know we have divided government and that they would not support that,” he said. At the same time, large tax hikes in the House proposal are “way beyond what I would say is even reasonable.”

Which gets back to his parting words for the Senate: “My commitment to this body, both Republicans and Democrats is that I will be respectful, that I will listen with an open mind to the governor and to the speaker and that I will advocate for the things we all believe in but also for the things Republicans believe in, as I expect the governor and the speaker as Democrats to advocate for the things they care about.”

And for her part, House Speaker Melissa Hortman didn’t let the DFL press conference make her pessimistic about the session. Asked if she thought the budget clash made her concerned about finishing by May 20, she gave a terse response.

“No,” she said. “There’s a lot of time left.”