Minnesota lawmakers will convene at the Capitol on Tuesday and spend the next few months sparring over government basics — like how to pay for road, building and bridge upkeep — while at the same time dueling in the polarizing arenas of gun regulation, drug prices and voter ID requirements.
The 2020 election, with all 201 House and Senate seats up for grabs, will hang over every decision.
Facing elections in November, the two political parties have signaled they will use part of the 2020 legislative session to highlight campaign issues and underscore their different visions for the state’s future. With divided government, leaders in each chamber can be expected to craft and pass partisan, aspirational bills that may ultimately never get to the desk of Gov. Tim Walz.
“You can expect that the Minnesota Republican-led Senate and the Democratic-led House will make it clear to Minnesota what kind of policies would become law if either of us had the other chamber,” said House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park.
Republicans’ top priorities include school choice, a tax break on Social Security benefits and protecting gun rights while addressing crime. On the Democrats’ list is paid family and medical leave, climate protections and gun restrictions such as universal background checks on firearms sales.
Walz and legislators on both sides of the aisle want to ensure access to low-cost insulin for diabetics, an issue where Democrats have sought to put Republicans on the defensive. Both sides also are looking for ways to repair management problems that have emerged over the past year in the sprawling Department of Human Services, state government’s largest agency. Meanwhile, the two sides must come together on a bonding bill authorizing borrowing to address the state’s growing transportation and public works infrastructure needs.
Walz kicked off the public borrowing debate last month by proposing more than $2 billion for repairs and improvements to state buildings, college and university campuses, roads, bridges and water systems. Legislators have not yet laid out their borrowing plans, but House Democrats anticipate their plan will be significantly bigger than Walz’s. Republicans have said they would support an infrastructure bill about half the size of the governor’s.
“It’s the number one thing that I think we should get done, and therefore let’s not lose sight of that,” said Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa.
That infrastructure bill likely will be the most significant financial issue this session — though, unlike biennial budgets the Legislature must pass, there is no constitutional requirement that lawmakers pass a bonding bill if they can’t cut a deal. This year’s negotiations will play out against a debate over how to use a projected $1.3 billion surplus. Ideas for the cash are plentiful.
Hortman wants to expand prekindergarten and pay for meals for students in need. Gazelka and House Assistant Deputy Republican Leader Anne Neu said the surplus should be used to cut state taxes on Social Security income. Susan Kent, the new Senate minority leader who ousted Sen. Tom Bakk from leadership, suggested matching grants for schools to add counselors, psychologists and social workers.
Walz, meanwhile, cautioned against too much spending and said maintaining strong budget reserves is critical. The Legislature dipped into the reserves last year and used $491 million to finalize a budget deal.
Clashes quickly emerged over what to do with the money during a session preview Wednesday at the Capitol. As lawmakers jousted over who would actually benefit from eliminating the income tax on Social Security, Gazelka cut through the tension with a joke.
“I think we disagree on this one,” he said. “But I’ll tell you what, governor. I’ll do the $491 [million for the] reserve, you do the Social Security, we’ll call it good.”
Gazelka has said he is trying to find “stuff in the middle.” But Hortman said much of the Senate Republicans’ platform sounds like “a broken record” of familiar conservative agenda items such as voter ID requirements, highlighting urban crime and tax credits for private school scholarships.
To get much done, legislators will need to break through partisan divisions — a tall order in an election year with control of the Legislature at stake heading into the 2020 census and redistricting process. Breakthroughs will need to happen fast. The Legislature is convening for 14 weeks, substantially shorter than last year.
“It will feel like it’s going at breakneck speed … What we will be telling our members is if want to get bills passed, go find a Republican senator who also wants to get that bill passed,” Hortman said.