4 weeks left and $1 billion to bridge for Minn. lawmakers

A few legislators are sworn-in in person at the Minnesota House Chamber.
A few legislators are sworn-in at the House Chamber and most were sworn in remotely in groups of nine at a time, via Zoom at the Minnesota State Capitol on Jan. 5.
Glen Stubbe | Star Tribune via AP file

This time of year at the Capitol is typically when top lawmakers strain to get on the same budget page. This year, they might struggle to get into the same room. 

Four weeks from Monday is the Legislature’s adjournment deadline, so there’s really less time than that for the Republican-led Senate and the DFL-led House to get divergent plans lined up if they’re going to avoid going into overtime. 

They can’t let a grand deal slip too deep into May because it takes considerable time to get the final bills ready for votes — even more so this year with the office that writes bill language less able to work around the clock.

Before the serious negotiations can commence, the Senate has three bills left to pass — a health and human services budget bill, a state agency finance plan, and a tax bill. But the outcome really isn’t in much doubt. The House is down to health and human services, which is due to come up for a vote Monday. A separate construction borrowing bill is also in the pipeline but that doesn’t have to pass to balance the budget.

Here’s the bottom line: All of the House bills add up to about $52.5 billion in spending out of the general treasury for the next two years, according to calculations from nonpartisan staff. The Senate plans, including those awaiting final votes, stand at $51.5 billion.

So that’s a cool $1 billion distance between them. And that’s just the top lines. There are countless differences in where each bill would put the dollars.

It’s not even as easy as saying just meeting in the middle. 

The House has larger funding plans when it comes to schools, child care, health programs and more. That’s because DFLers muscled through a tax bill that would raise tax rates for people with million-dollar incomes and for businesses that shift profits out of state. 

House Tax Chair Paul Marquart justified the decision last week by noting the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated differences between the haves and have-nots.

“Most of the time when we run into kind of an economic downturn, the income disparity actually gets closer. But that didn’t happen this time. It’s unique in history actually,” Marquart said “This economic downturn created greater income disparity.”

But his counterpart, Senate Tax Chair Carla Nelson, insists her side won’t agree to raise taxes.

“I would find that very damaging in our environment, particularly when we have over a billion-dollar surplus and we have billions coming from the feds,” she said Friday. “Of course, Minnesotans are still reeling as we recover not just from the health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic but the following economic impacts.”

It underscores the difficulty of getting a deal out of the gate. 

But Minnesota does have those federal recovery act dollars that could patch some holes, even if temporarily. And it hasn’t had to dive into a budget reserve yet. Lawmakers are also known for finding creative workarounds.

This has been such an unusual session given the mostly closed Capitol and attention to social distancing. Conference committees pose their own challenge.

The Senate has been holding some hybrid committee hearings with a handful of lawmakers in the same room and the rest online. The House has been exclusively online for its hearings.

Top leaders have to solve the logistics issue before they even dive into the dollars and cents.

The makeup of the negotiating committees — usually five House members and five senators on each major budget bill — is also worth watching.

The House has developed a diverse roster so far, with several lawmakers of color and many women on the panels. 

The House has made equity a central focus this session in its policy and budget proposals. 

Those conference committee members are going to be carefully guarding the measures developed to achieve equity goals as the negotiations proceed.

House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said the diversity is intentional and a sign of the caucus commitment to carry the goals to the end. 

“By having people of color with different life experiences at the table, those issues will be central,” Hortman said, “as they should be.”

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