Field is set to end legislative session if all sides can agree

GOP leader Paul Gazelka responds to Gov. Tim Walz budget
Republican Senate majority leader Paul Gazelka said the budget released by Gov. Tim Walz in February was a nonstarter and the GOP would work to sharply curb his proposed tax increases.
Tim Nelson | MPR News

This is the time of year when negotiation metaphors are abundant at the Capitol.

"We're all lining up on a football field and now we're ready to hike the ball, and two sides come together," said Republican Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka.

"This is like the beginning of the fourth quarter. And you know the last two and half minutes of the game really take the longest part of the whole game. We haven't gotten to the two-minute warning yet," said DFL House Speaker Melissa Hortman.

While the two legislative leaders both framed the session's finale in sports images, their teams are on separate fields when it comes to building a new state budget.

Billions of dollars and scores of conflicting priorities stand between them and an agreement.

House DFL leaders Liz Olson, Ryan Winkler and Melissa Hortman
House DFL leaders Liz Olson, Ryan Winkler and Melissa Hortman listen to a question about their budget bills and the last month of session.
Brian Bakst | MPR News file

Oh, and there's one more big player in the mix — first-year Gov. Tim Walz, a Democrat and, as fate would have it, a former prep football coach. He says he stands ready to cut a deal.

"I am willing to compromise with them," Walz said. "The Senate tells me they are. But they view compromise as 'no, no, no, no' — four no's. 'No, no, no' — we went to three no's. So, we've compromised with you. No, that is not it."

Let's start with the big picture: The House-approved budget checks in at $49.8 billion in spending from the general treasury.

The Senate is at $47.7 billion.

Either way, that's a big step up from the $45.5 billion being spent in the current budget, which expires after June.

Dig a bit deeper and the differences are magnified.

On Wednesday, Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, hailed her nearly $20 billion education budget bill, if enacted, as "the largest education spending bill in Minnesota history."

That's true, but also pretty much always the case from one budget to the next.

The bill contains back-to-back half-percent increase in the allowances that schools get for each student.

And as Rep. Jim Davnie, DFL-Minneapolis, laid out, it's shy of what's in the House bill: a 3 percent increase in that formula that coming school year and an additional 2 percent the following year.

All told, the House plan has $680 million more for schools the next two years.

Up and down the budget, the House has a bigger bottom line. But the DFL majority there also relies on higher taxes.

There's a phased-in gas tax increase eventually reaching 20 cents per gallon, an extension of the 2 percent tax on medical providers that is set to end this year and various business tax changes. They're consistent with Walz initiatives.

None of those is included in the Senate's budget. But Republicans are banking on saving money on health care by reducing benefits and cracking down on fraud more. Democrats doubt the payoff will live up to expectations.

And there are key differences on social policy within the budget bills. DFLers want to impose new restrictions around guns; Republicans insist they won't budge. The GOP has new curbs on abortion in mind; Democrats reject those.

Gazelka said both sides are going to have to abandon proposals they hold dear.

"It's difficult for me. I want to fight for certain things and will," he said. "But in the end, if one side or the other is not going to give, we have to pass a two-year budget. That's our responsibility. We're going to keep our eye on the ball. And I'm going to ask the governor and the speaker as well."

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