Gov. Tim Walz and legislators were holed up in their longest budget negotiation meeting of the legislative session Tuesday and appeared determined to make progress on a two-year state budget as a May 20 deadline looms.
Top lawmakers spent five hours in negotiations Tuesday afternoon before breaking for dinner and returning to their meeting shortly after 8 p.m. As they came and went, they said little about what was happening behind closed doors.
“We’re working though the budget. The fact that we were there that long should say something,” said Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa.
Legislative leaders have said they need to come up with an overall spending plan no later than Wednesday to meet their constitutional deadline next Monday, when they are scheduled to adjourn for the year.
Walz, a first-term DFL governor trying to shepherd his first budget through the Legislature, is seeking a gas tax increase, corporate tax hikes and the extension of a 2% tax on health care that is set to expire this year. Joined by the DFL majority in the Minnesota House, Walz wants the money to upgrade schools, roads, health care and aid to cities and counties.
“Moving along, we have to get this budget done. ... Our plan is to be here all night,” Walz said as he left the negotiating room on the way to dinner Tuesday evening.
Republicans who control the state Senate have held firm that they will not agree to any tax increase and want the current 2% tax on health care to expire at the end of the year as scheduled. Gazelka has been resolute in his opposition to tax increases, suggesting that an additional $100 million in spending offered by the GOP to boost schools and public safety funding could come instead from the budget surplus and reserves.
That came in response to Walz and DFL leaders offering to cut spending and dropping their proposed gas tax hike from 20 to 16 cents per gallon.
The biggest difference between the two sides is on education spending, the biggest part of the state budget. The two sides started $700 million apart, though Republicans offered another $75 million on Monday.
As a long day of negotiating got underway Tuesday, Walz voiced determination to get a deal done.
“The sun coming up this morning, and I think for me I revert to this, something I’m proud of and proud to be a part of. I build championship football teams and this needs to be building that for Minnesota,” he said. “We’re gonna build a budget that invests in education, health care, community prosperity. We’re going to … do it to the best of our ability to do it on time and do it in the way Minnesotans expect, to get results.”
Marty Seifert, a lobbyist who was once House GOP minority leader and a candidate for governor, said he still envisions an on-time finish, albeit an ugly one.
“The legislative plane will land. But its engines will be on fire, the wings will be missing and the landing gear will be broken off. But it will land,” he said.
State government would shut down on July 1 if lawmakers and Walz cannot agree on a two-year budget that funds schools, parks, the social safety net and other programs.
Seifert said the Republicans’ advantage is that they don’t need much, which means the DFL doesn’t have much leverage in the negotiations: “The Senate Republicans don’t need anything from government. Their answer is probably going to be the same on May 21 or July 1 or July 30 — it’s the same answer.”