Business has shared interests with most Minnesotans as state lawmakers undertake their work in St. Paul.
Gov. Tim Walz, who will outline his own goals at his upcoming State of the State address, will likely concentrate on management of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout and the new two-year state budget taking effect in July.
The state's business community will position itself as most cautious regarding dramatic increases in taxes and state spending as well as matters dealing with unemployment, workers' compensation and business property taxes.
Yes, Walz's use of COVID-related emergency powers to dictate the terms of responding to the most significant public health crisis in the state's history will draw fire from Republicans, especially regarding school and business closure policies. New COVID-related programs favored by DFLers include housing assistance, aid to poor families and additional funding for child-care providers.
The current two-year budget of $48.3 billion is expected to have a surplus of $641 million; the same analysis also projects a shortfall of nearly $1.3 billion that will affect future state taxing, spending and policy priorities — some COVID-related.
Minnesota state government is narrowly split for the next two years. Each party controls one of the two chambers — a dynamic that often results in partisan gridlock.
The DFL maintains 70-64 control of the House, where 68 votes are needed to pass legislation; with 34 seats, the Republican Party maintains control of the 67-member Senate, where 34 votes are needed to pass legislation. That majority is fluid, however, as DFLers in the Senate have 31 members, with two former DFL incumbents becoming part of an independent caucus that may or may not choose to align with the Republicans. Walz, a DFLer, has the veto power to reject any proposal that crosses his desk.
In the 2021 session, the public — and lobbyists — will most likely not be allowed to observe in person; meetings with lawmakers will be by appointment. Necessary committee meetings and public hearings will be available online.
Both chambers must approve a balanced two-year budget that will require Walz's signature. If this isn't done, state government funding will be shut down.
As the session proceeds, the state's Office of Management and Budget in coordination with the state economist and private financial advisers will release a forecast in March that will guide the financial deliberations so do not expect agreement anytime soon.
DFLers and Republicans will likely make some predictable arguments. Republicans will assert that now is not the time to raise taxes, but, if necessary, to make spending cuts or utilize the state's dwindling reserves. DFLers will argue that the uneven nature of the pandemic's economic toll necessitates expanding some government programs, and that the wealthy should be taxed more to help pay for it.
We've seen elsewhere that our elected representatives take opposite sides and characterize the other party as evil. Is it any wonder there's often too little compromise?
The people as well as Walz and lawmakers of both parties do know that it is not inherently unhealthy to disagree.
One Pew Research Center study released last February found that two of every three Americans were identified as disengaged, dubbed "the Exhausted Majority." This segment believes politicians don't care about people like them. They do not share political content over social media or attend community meetings; the majority do not vote in an election. But this segment tends to say privately that they believe in compromise. They reject the absolutism of the extreme wings of both parties driven by partisan loyalty.
We should all be concerned by the lack of engagement by this majority.
The model for Minnesota to emulate includes a fair hearing for ideas, thoughtful discussion and, if no agreement is reached, a willingness to vote for compromise solutions to get the important work done.
The 2021 Minnesota Legislature is a case study in the making.
Chuck Slocum, president of the Williston Group, is a former executive director of the Minnesota Business Partnership. He can be reached at Chuck@willistongroup.com.