For most of the past decade, Republicans and Democrats at the Minnesota State Capitol have clashed over budget deficits and haggled over taxes and spending. At times, they have even allowed bipartisan policy goals on infrastructure and health care to fall prey to partisan gridlock.
In Tuesday’s election, Minnesota voters opted for at least two years of more of the same, delivering Republicans a narrow majority in the Senate and Democrats control in the House.
“It keeps some balance in,” said Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake. “I think Minnesotans, consciously or unconsciously, didn’t want one-party control.”
The state that just can’t shake divided government is once again expected to host the only politically fractured two-chamber Legislature in the nation. Facing a pandemic, a big budget deficit, redistricting and a host of other issues, longtime observers expect no shortage of drama when lawmakers return in January.
“There’s just so many issues that have emerged out of the pandemic and out of the killing of George Floyd that are reshaping our political discussion. That’s going to create a lot of tension on top of a budget deficit,” said Todd Rapp, a DFL operative who spent years working in the Minnesota House. “It’s such a close margin in both chambers. This is about as close of a Legislature as there has been in both chambers in a long time.”
There is precedent for bipartisan cooperation at the Capitol. In the past two years, the politically divided chambers found enough common ground to pass a $48 billion budget, an insulin affordability program, a police accountability package, and, last month, a $1.9 billion public works construction deal.
House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said that track record gives her hope that she, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka and DFL Gov. Tim Walz will be able to get things done again this year, despite disagreements on policy and budgeting.
“My hope will be we have another productive working relationship,” she said. “But the challenges facing the state are significant right now … [and] the work that we have to do from January to May of this year is considerably more difficult.”
The session that begins in January brings fresh and potentially more fraught political dynamics. An ongoing disagreement between Walz and Republicans over the governor’s use of executive powers in the pandemic has strained relations, culminating in the ousting of two commissioners in summer special sessions. Now, as Walz gears up to run for a second term as governor in 2022, Gazelka is rumored to be weighing a bid himself. Republicans have already vowed to serve as a check on the governor’s agenda.
“I’m the Republican voice at the table,” Gazelka said in a video posted after he was re-elected as the Senate leader last week. “We’ll reach out where we can, and what we need to stop we will continue to stop.”
While the Legislature has no shortage of issues on its agenda, including the redrawing of political maps for the next decade, the ongoing pandemic and multibillion-dollar budget deficit are expected to dominate the coming session. Filling the largest budget hole in a decade will force lawmakers to make tough choices.
“We had to look under every rock,” said Charlie Weaver, executive director of the Minnesota Business Partnership, who served in former Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s administration in 2004, when a divided Legislature faced a more than $4 billion budget deficit. “That was the challenge: What’s going to be the mix between new revenue, vs. efficiencies vs. cuts?”
Walz has said all options should be on the table for tackling the deficit. But Gazelka already pledged to resist the gas tax increase proposed by Walz in 2019. Some Democrats and their allies, meanwhile, are holding firm on the need to raise revenue by increasing taxes on corporations and wealthy individuals.
Denise Specht, president of the teachers union Education Minnesota, said the pandemic has underscored the need to fully fund schools and other services, even amid a budget shortfall.
“The issues and concerns that are facing everyday Minnesotans aren’t going to go away,” she said.
Beyond the budget, the partisan split means top priorities for both sides could stall for another two years. Republicans are unlikely to win bicameral support for broad tax cuts, proposed write-offs for private school donations and additional restrictions on abortion. Top items for progressive groups — universal child care, driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants and a state paid family leave program — face an uncertain fate now. Passing marijuana legalization and gun control measures would be tough sledding.
Still, some DFL lawmakers remain undeterred. JaNaé Bates, communications director for Faith in Minnesota, said she expects activists to lobby even harder for their agenda.
“We will absolutely, unapologetically fight hard for them in this session, hoping that our GOP colleagues wake up and actually move with the rest of Minnesota,” Bates said.
Those efforts could be further complicated by changes to the political composition of both chambers. In DFL caucuses, longtime members who retired or lost their primaries will be replaced by more progressive successors. At the same time, House Democrats lost a handful of rural and suburban seats, tightening the margins in that chamber.
The more narrow majorities in both chambers mean caucuses either need to stick together or win support from the other side to get bills passed off the floor.
“Nothing is going to happen unless there is bipartisan support,” said Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington. “As always, the governor will set the tone for how the session goes. If he has a pragmatic, reasonable budget then it will be a collaborative session. But if he comes out with the … left-wing goofball plan, it’s going to be a really, really bad year.”
As a number of rural Democrats were knocked out in the House and Senate. Sen. Kent Eken, DFL-Twin Valley, held on to his rural western Minnesota Senate seat on Tuesday, but he’s concerned about the loss of rural seats in the Democratic Party and an intensification of the urban and rural divide at the Capitol.
“I’m always working across party divides to do what’s best for our region,” he said. “We weren’t sent down to toe the party line but to represent our constituents, and that requires working across the aisle.”
Even amid the pandemic, many elements of the governing process will remain the same next year. State lawmakers are constitutionally required to balance the budget. And dark horse deals can, and do, emerge. Hortman said the will of members, and pressure from the public, will drive what does and does not get done.
“We never know at the beginning of the legislative session what is going to happen on the other side,” she said.