Walz celebrates budget as House leaders credit ‘win-wins’

Published 5:40 pm Friday, July 2, 2021

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MINNEAPOLIS — Gov. Tim Walz celebrated the completion of a two-year $52 billion state budget and new milestones in Minnesota’s fight against COVID-19 on Thursday, while House Democratic leaders credited their search for “win-wins” with Senate Republicans.

“Well, the COVID recovery act budget is done, the work now begins,” Walz said at a ceremonial signing of copies of the big budget bills that the Legislature sent him Wednesday, just hours before the old budget expired.

As of Thursday, 70% of Minnesotans 18 and older had received at least their first vaccine shots, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Walz said Minnesota is only the second Midwestern state to meet President Joe Biden’s goal of 70% by July 4, and that the state leads the Midwest with 52% of its population fully vaccinated. Walz took pride in those numbers even though the state fell short of his goal of 70% of residents in a wider age range — 16 and up — to be at least partially vaccinated by July 1. That figure stands at 67%.

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The divided Legislature finished off the budget when it passed a tax bill early Thursday. But its more time-critical steps came Wednesday when lawmakers passed the last of the spending bills forming the core of the budget, beating a midnight deadline for averting a partial state government shutdown.

The 2020 regular legislative session, which ended in May, and the June special session, which was necessary to finish the budget, won’t go down as the most productive in state history due to partisan differences and the difficulties of making deals while working remotely most of the time. There were disputes over how to spend a huge influx of federal relief. And the 2020 elections left House Democrats and Senate Republicans with even slimmer majorities than before.

“It’s been one heck of a year. … I think Minnesota is happy with the overall work that’s been completed,” GOP Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, of East Gull Lake, remarked wearily just before the final gavel.

Democratic House Speaker Melissa Hortman, of Brooklyn Park, said she, Walz and Gazelka were able to “accomplish major objectives for Democrats and Republicans” despite their differences.

“To the dismay of some members of my caucus, I look for win-wins,” Hortman said at a news conference.

Republicans blocked Democratic proposals for tax increases on the wealthy. Instead the highlight of the tax bill was $1 billion in tax cuts for businesses and workers hit by the pandemic. Democrats gave in to GOP demands to preserve the state’s health care reinsurance program. And Republicans got their way with an end to the peacetime state of emergency.

“Democrats achieved significant investments in education and health and human services,” Hortman said. She claimed success for the inclusion of protections for renters in the “off ramp” to the state’s eviction moratorium. And she highlighted a package to increase the hiring and retention of teachers of color.

Police accountability was one of the toughest divides to bridge. Democrats from the People of Color and Indigenous Caucus pushed hard against resistance by Republicans to deeper policing changes, hoping to build on changes the Legislature enacted last summer following the unrest over  the death of George Floyd.

But only a modest compromise came together in the end. Democrats were able to get agreement on “sign and release” warrants so people stopped for certain minor offenses who have outstanding warrants for missed court appearances won’t have to go to jail, the speaker noted. The bill also plugs holes in the state’s sexual assault laws.

“It was because we were willing to look for win-wins that we were able to get some really significant Democratic wins with a divided Legislature and that Senator Gazelka was able to get some significant conservative wins,” Hortman said.

While the House adjourned its special session, the Senate only recessed until Friday. Gazelka said that was mostly “trust but verify” to make sure nothing went wrong. He didn’t expect many senators to return.

Walz is expected to call lawmakers back for another special session in September to approve a $250 million bonus package of federal aid for frontline workers who risked their lives in the pandemic. Details of how that will work must still be negotiated. The next special session could also provide an opportunity to pass another piece of unfinished business, a public works borrowing package known as a bonding bill — if lawmakers can agree on what projects should go into it.