Minnesota lawmakers finalize major bills

ST. PAUL — Minnesota legislators worked to wrap up details of their big budget bills Monday ahead of a midnight adjournment, while haggling began over the timing and length of a special session later this week to pass those packages and complete the state’s next two-year budget.

Gov. Tim Walz, Republican Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka and Democratic House Speaker Melissa Hortman announced the framework of the budget deal Sunday night after a week of closed-door talks. It calls for a budget of around $48 billion, about a 6% increase from the current budget.

Highlights include an increase in per-pupil state aid to public school districts of 2% in each year of the two-year budget, and a small 0.25% income tax cut for middle-income Minnesotans effective this year. Republicans fought off Walz’s proposed 20 cent-per-gallon gas tax increase to pay for roads and bridges.

The top leaders told their conference committees to finish negotiating the details Monday evening, but it was clear from interviews and press availabilities Monday that that goal might have been overly optimistic. Besides making spending fit the targets the leaders set, the conferees still needed to decide about including or dropping numerous controversial policy provisions in one chamber’s version or the other. Those talks could continue past adjournment of the regular session.

House Speaker Melissa Hortman said Monday that the three top leaders left it to the conference committees to decide what policy issues should go in the final bills. She wasn’t immediately ready to concede that that might take longer than Monday night.

“If people want their bills to pass this year they should be expeditious,” Hortman said.

While Hortman expressed hope Sunday night for a one-day special session on Thursday, both the date and the length were far from settled Monday. Gazelka called Thursday “ambitious but not impossible.”

“If we go Thursday that’s great,” Walz said. “If we have to go Friday we go Friday.”

Republican House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt has threatened to slow down the special session. Confining a special session to one day would require suspending the House’s normal procedural rules, which would require at least six GOP votes. So would passing a public works borrowing bill, also known as a bonding bill.

“I would say we’re not as close to the deal as they were kind of implying last night,” Daudt said. “I wouldn’t hold your breath for a Thursday special session at this point.”

House Republicans could drag out the special session by at least three days or more if they don’t agree to suspend the rules. Daudt said his caucus had not decided its next move. He said House Democrats had not made him any offers, and he was still unhappy about being excluded from the budget talks. Now that the former speaker finally has a little leverage, he demurred on what he might want in exchange.

“I don’t know. We haven’t had that discussion,” Daudt said. Letting the state’s 2% tax on health care providers expire as scheduled at the end of the year was the House GOP’s top priority. Walz, Gazelka and Hortman agreed to make the tax permanent at 1.8%. Daudt acknowledged that he probably can’t reopen that issue.

Walz said Daudt has the leverage and the right to hold up the process, but warned there could be repercussions.

“There’s a great deal of relief and pride and hopefulness” over the compromise, Walz said. Spoiling it “would not be a great move. I don’t think that’s where the state’s at.”

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