Awash in money, Minnesota lawmakers strain for session deals

Published 1:36 pm Monday, March 7, 2022

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Last week’s estimate of a projected $9.25 billion surplus — with another $1 billion in federal money left to spend — leaves ample resources for many priorities to be addressed if a divided Capitol power structure can reach compromise.

As is often the case in election years, campaign-oriented proposals are occupying a lot of time even though they are long shots to become law. And the differences in approaches around the surplus appear vast, although there are incentives for the sides to get at least something meaningful accomplished.

So far, four bills have gone the distance and gained Gov. Tim Walz’s signature. They’ve been largely technical in nature — moving a deadline, formalizing a waiver process around COVID-19 or in one case making a slight change in who gets a say over sewer systems.

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It’s not unusual for the Legislature to almost plod along in the early going. The place is built on backloading action and taking rapid-fire votes near the end of session.

But there are some pressing topics that need more urgent attention.

The Republican-led Senate has approved a $2.7 billion bill to restock the unemployment trust fund and pay off a debt to the federal government for floating that account. Walz’s administration has said if nothing becomes law by March 15, most Minnesota businesses will have to pay more in unemployment taxes.

The DFL-controlled House has an unemployment fund bill lined up for a vote but hasn’t scheduled that yet. Leaders there have questioned whether blanket relief is warranted.

The House has approved a $1 billion plan to provide pandemic front-line worker checks of up to $1,500. They’d go to as many as 677,000 people who couldn’t work from home during the early days of COVID-19 and who were seen as performing essential duties.

Senate leaders have been cool to a proposal of that amount and scope of eligibility.

Senate Majority Leader Jeremy Miller, R-Winona, has been reluctant to move off a previous agreement for a $250 million pool of bonuses, which he said should go mainly to health workers. On Friday, he suggested the window on any deal might be closing.

“And given the forecast situation, Republicans are really focused on providing tax relief to all working Minnesotans,” Miller said.

“And that’s what our tax relief package does — it provides more money to working Minnesotans every single paycheck on a permanent, ongoing basis.”

This is turning into a test of wills. Many around the Capitol expect something to happen in tandem, but that kind of agreement has yet to emerge.

House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said she presented Miller with an offer to do both.

“Their position right now is they’re willing to do what they want, but they’re not willing to do any of what we want,” Hortman said. “So, you know, I think certainly we can move somewhat rapidly on these things. But there has to be give and take. There can’t be just one side giving and the other side taking.”

Every day, there are wall-to-wall hearings on bills that might not make the headlines: changing professional licensure rules; establishing or revising business grant programs; examining proposals for public construction projects. They’re the nuts-and-bolts of legislative work and important to the constituencies behind them.

But there are also a lot of “one-side only” bills gobbling up time. Those are items that will no doubt pass through one chamber and satisfy the political base of the majority party. But they probably won’t make it across the finish line due to the realities of divided government.

Some examples: a bill approved last week by the Senate on access to school curriculum. It’s part of an effort among Republicans nationally to connect with parents who feel left out of education decisions. That plan and a few others along those lines probably won’t advance in the House. Much of the material covered by the bill is available upon request now.

Likewise, the House is moving ahead with a bill to ban conversion therapy for vulnerable adults or youth who identify as LGBTQ. That would face an uphill climb in the Senate.

Both chambers are moving ahead with public safety proposals that involve law enforcement recruitment or stepped-up penalties for certain crimes. There is some overlap but a resolution is a ways down the road.

In this election year, changes of significance to election law are unlikely to prevail.

Democrats are pushing for laws around polling place security and intimidation of election judges and other voting administrators.

“There’s been an increasingly tense political environment, aggressive rhetoric on social media that has really involuntarily thrust many of these men and women into the public spotlight. It’s happening around the country and it’s happening here in Minnesota,” said DFL Rep. Emma Greenman of Minneapolis, who is pushing a bill to make election-related intimidation a crime.

Republicans want to institute a photo ID requirement and to limit activities around organized absentee ballot drives.

“The problem is that we have the ability for people to vouch, we have people walking around Minneapolis harvesting ballots hundreds at a time, that’s the security-in-our-elections problem,” said Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa.

The rule of thumb around the Capitol is that election proposals lacking considerable bipartisan support don’t go anywhere.

Due to the pandemic and the surge in voting by mail in 2020, elections officials were allowed to begin processing those ballots two weeks before the election, therefore locking in those votes. But that was a temporary change and the processing window is back to one week. Election administrators hope the Legislature will give them the extra time again.

“Both chambers have always treaded lightly in an election year for big election changes,” said DFL Secretary of State Steve Simon. “That’s why we are focusing our efforts on things that are gettable and doable that appear to have bipartisan support.”