ST. PAUL, Minn. — Minnesota lawmakers got down to the hard work of the 2019 session Tuesday with just four weeks left and deep divisions remaining over spending and taxes.
The agenda for the Democratic-controlled Minnesota House on its first day back from its holiday break included big education and jobs budget bills. Minority Republicans filed around 200 amendments — including some opposing the bill's sex education provisions — ensuring a long, contentious debate. The GOP-controlled Senate's agenda included that chamber's main agriculture and rural development budget bill, plus its overall environment and natural resources funding bill.
All the competing budget bills moving through the House and Senate this week and next will end up in conference committees, where negotiators will try to reach the compromises needed to complete a balanced two-year budget so lawmakers can go home after the constitutionally mandated May 20 adjournment date.
"Compromise is a virtue, not a vice," Democratic Gov. Tim Walz said at a news conference.
Democrats have proposed a 20-cent per gallon, 70% increase in the state's gasoline tax to pay for transportation, and closing corporate tax loopholes to raise more money for education, ideas that Republicans say they can't accept when the state has a projected $1 billion surplus.
"There is no way that we can make a significant difference for Minnesota's kids, for people's health care, transportation, for higher education — there's no way that we can make a difference in any of those areas without some new revenue in some places," House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler said.
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka defended the Senate GOP's budget plan, saying it represents a 5% overall spending increase over the next two years, or about $2.3 billion more than the current two-year budget, without raising taxes.
"I still expect to get done on time," Gazelka told reporters. "It will be difficult — the fact that they have the spending increases and tax increases that they want — but there's no reason we can't get there."
Walz said one issue he won't compromise on is a permanent funding source for the state's Health Care Access Fund, which helps pay for Medicaid and the MinnesotaCare program for the working poor. The money now comes from a 2% tax on health care providers that's due to expire at year's end. Democrats want to renew the tax while Republicans want to let it die. Walz said he's open to discussing an alternative funding mechanism.
The governor expressed frustration with the continuing stalemate over legislation to unlock $6.6 million in federal funds to beef up security for Minnesota's Statewide Voter Registration System, a partisan standoff that he said has degenerated into a "theater of the absurd." He said he won't trade that for election law changes that Senate Republicans might want, such as measures against voter fraud.
"There will be not one inch of give," the governor said. "This is a clearly blatant obstruction of a piece of legislation that everybody agrees needs to be done."
Once again, Senate Republicans failed to show up Tuesday for a conference committee meeting on a bill to release the money. They have said little publicly to make it clear what it would take to win their support. Gazelka would say little about the impasse except that "it will get done by the end of session."