After session ends in whimper, lawmakers await instructions
ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — As veteran Sen. Tom Bakk put it, the 2019 regular session of the Minnesota Legislature ended with a whimper. It also ended without firm word on how lawmakers will bring their unfinished bills to completion to meet their leaders’ goal of holding and completing a special session this week.
In the closing hours Monday night, the Legislature approved only one of the big budget bills that constitute the most important work of the session, a $3.41 billion higher education package to fund the separate Minnesota State and University of Minnesota systems and other programs. Both chambers also sent the governor a bill raising fees on drug makers to raise money for combatting the opioid crisis.
But that was about it.
The Senate passed a bill to fund the state agriculture department, rural development and housing programs, but time ran out in the House when Republicans balked at considering a 110-page bill they hadn’t seen.
On Tuesday, lawmakers were still waiting to hear from their leadership about the next steps. When Gov. Tim Walz and leaders of the House Democratic and Senate GOP majorities announced their $48 billion budget outline Sunday evening, they expressed hope that the conference committees that had to work out the details could finish in time for a one-day special session Thursday.
That date still looked tentative by Tuesday.
“I think it would be great if we have a special session on Thursday,” was as committal as Democratic House Speaker Melissa Hortman would get while speaking with reporters early Tuesday after the final gavel.
The overall budget agreement raises spending by about 6%, in part by tapping a rainy day fund. Republicans blocked a 20 cent gas tax increase but won a modest income tax cut for middle-income Minnesotans. Democrats won on a couple of major priorities by extending a health care tax that was due to expire and boosting per-pupil state aid to public school districts by 2% in each of the next two years.
While a few conference committees appeared to be not too far from agreement, nearly all of them kicked their more difficult disputes back up to the triumvirate of Walz, Hortman and GOP Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka. The three met into the early hours Tuesday to try to resolve them and were back at it Tuesday afternoon, Walz spokesman Teddy Tschann said.
For example, the conferees on the environment and natural resources funding bill had to ask the leaders to decide on a proposed ban on wolf hunting for sport if the federal government takes the animals off the threatened list, which is in the House version but not the Senate’s.
Both sides acknowledged that it was going to be difficult to quickly finish the massive health and human services funding bill. It contains a myriad of Democratic policy proposals that are unpopular with Republicans plus a few GOP proposals that Democrats won’t accept such as limits on abortion.
GOP House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt said he didn’t think a special session could or should be held Thursday. Suspending the House’s procedural rules to limit a special session to one day would require some Republican votes, as would passing a public works borrowing bill. Daudt still wasn’t in a mood to give that consent.
“This has been the least productive, least transparent session in the history of this state,” Daudt said. “Minnesotans should be ashamed of the process at the end of this legislative session.”