Minnesota lawmakers have only two days left in their nearly five-month session and one huge, unfinished job in deciding how the state should spend $46 billion over the next two years.
Despite the urgency, Saturday was a day of relative quiet at the State Capitol. Gov. Mark Dayton and top commissioners negotiated in private throughout the day with Republicans who control the Legislature, hoping to overcome major divisions on taxes, transportation and spending on health and human services programs. By evening, the kind of last-minute rush of activity that usually accompanies a session's closing hours had not yet materialized.
Secrecy around budget talks often means both sides think they're making progress. But in the absence of concrete proof of that, uncertainty was in the air inside the statehouse. Would the DFL governor and Republican Legislature find a way to compromise by Monday's midnight deadline, striking a balance between DFL spending priorities and tax cuts sought by Republicans? Can the two sides avoid a special session and threat of government shutdown?
Lobbyists, activists, reporters and even most lawmakers waited on the sidelines as the leaders scrambled to strike a deal out of public view. Also not clear was whether Republicans continued to insist on a handful of policy priorities Dayton has called unacceptable, including a ban on the ability of cities to set their own minimum wage and sick leave regulations.
For rank-and-file legislators out of the loop but accountable to constituents, it's a frustrating time.
"Out of 134 [House members], about 125 of us are waiting in the wings," said Rep. Jack Considine, DFL-Mankato. "Which frankly, I don't believe is what I was elected to do."
As the session careens to a close, some at the Capitol drew comparisons to Dayton's first year in office, 2011. That year, the DFL governor and a Republican-majority Legislature failed to strike a budget deal before the June 30 close of the state's fiscal year, forcing Minnesota into a nearly three-week government shutdown.
Though the state has the same divided government this time around, Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said there is much that sets 2017 apart from 2011. Most notably, that year Dayton and lawmakers were forced to account for a $5 billion budget deficit; this time, a $1.65 billion budget surplus makes the debate about what to do with extra money rather than how to make up for a lack of it.
Bakk said that would make it harder for lawmakers to defend not finishing by Monday's deadline.
"Not getting it done is pretty hard to explain to the public when you've got a … surplus," Bakk said. "You couldn't figure out how to spend the money? Really? I think real people will really shake their heads about that."
The state's positive bank balance aside, it's been clear for months that partisan and regional divides were likely to cast a shadow over work at the Capitol this year. All of the Legislature's seats were on the ballot in last year's election, and the Republican groundswell that swept President Donald Trump into office helped the GOP seize the state Senate majority and boost its ranks in the state House.
Republican state lawmakers who campaigned on repealing the Affordable Care Act and cutting taxes came to St. Paul in January with a new surge of energy, pledging to act immediately to fix the state's struggling individual insurance market.
By early April, the Legislature authorized and Dayton signed a total of $868 million to prop up the individual market, divided between premium rebates for customers and a "reinsurance" program that gives state money to insurance companies facing unusually high claims.
Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, helped lead efforts to pass those interventions in the insurance market. While she and many fellow GOP lawmakers support efforts in Congress to undo the Affordable Care Act, she said uncertainty around when and how that could happen has made setting state health care policy even more difficult.
"I've described it as walking across a trampoline with a glass full of water," Benson said. "It's balancing, adjusting, trying to be aware but knowing that just like in our Legislature, anything can change in Washington."
While the session brought some bipartisan compromise on health care, the issue also produced some of the most heated debates.
"There is a real and palpable desire to drastically cut the support that we offer to people most in need," Sen. Tony Lourey, DFL-Kerrick, said of GOP health care proposals.
It's not just party politics that divided lawmakers this session. On topics ranging from light-rail transit to environmental regulations to minimum wage, lawmakers from the Twin Cities area and those from greater Minnesota were at odds, each arguing they were misunderstood by the other.
"I do witness it, and I think it's extremely real," said Rep. Julie Sandstede, DFL-Hibbing. "I don't think it's necessarily intentional, us versus them, but I have come to realize that realities play out differently in the metro area than in greater Minnesota."
The session did bring a happy ending for one dedicated group: activists who finally succeeded, after years of trying, in repealing the state law that forced liquor stores to be closed on Sundays. Starting July 1, Minnesotans will be able to buy alcohol every day of the week.
"People really, really got involved and got motivated," said state Sen. Jeremy Miller, R-Winona, who sponsored the Sunday sales bill that the Legislature passed in March. A wave of new lawmakers this year gave supporters the opening they finally needed.
Lawmakers are well aware that decisions they make and votes they take this session will play a starring role in the 2018 election.
Several members of the Legislature have already announced campaigns for governor. Several others, including House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, are still thinking about it. Other lawmakers are plotting campaigns for other higher office, or just thinking about holding onto their own seats in districts with shifting political demographics.
Rep. Dario Anselmo, R-Edina, is finishing out his freshman legislative session in a seat he won from a longtime incumbent, one of several Republicans who flipped DFL seats in the last election. He said the Legislature is more partisan than he had imagined, and that lawmakers angling to win points for future elections contribute to the divide.
But as the end of the session neared, Anselmo said he suspected that some of that political posturing might help speed things along.
"There's a political backdrop of a lot of people running for governor — and that maybe affects why a government shutdown isn't good for anyone," Anselmo said.
Star Tribune reporter Jennifer Brooks contributed to this report.