Minnesota lawmakers are debating how to spend $52 billion in state dollars and billions more in federal pandemic aid. They're trying to resolve thorny policy issues including policing and election reform.

And they're doing it almost entirely in private.

Since leaders adjourned the regular legislative session on May 17 with a broad outline for a budget deal, legislators have retreated to daily conversations behind the scenes ahead of an expected mid-June special session to finish the work.

Many big budget areas still are unresolved after two weeks in which only two public hearings were held.

"They are telling us that work groups are meeting, but are they? What's on the table? What are some of the key concerns?" asked Annastacia Belladonna-Carrera, executive director of the good-government advocacy group Common Cause Minnesota. "When you have members of the Legislature reaching out to me trying to find out if I know something, that's when you know something is wrong."

Gov. Tim Walz and leaders in Minnesota's divided Legislature announced a deal on the final day of the session that would cut taxes on pandemic relief, pump new funding into classrooms and give the Legislature more say over how to spend federal COVID-19 relief dollars.

They said lawmakers would craft the bills before June 14, when Walz is expected to extend his emergency powers to respond to the pandemic for another 30 days, automatically requiring lawmakers to return to the Capitol.

But disagreements remain over election law policy, clean cars emissions standards and police reform measures, making it challenging to resolve key parts of the state budget.

A week after the session adjourned, a spate of shootings in Minneapolis prompted GOP Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka to release a video saying it's time to increase the law enforcement presence in the state's largest city. He said in an interview that he's been particularly affected by the news of the death of young children killed by stray bullets over the past month, and he wants to devote State Patrol resources to helping keep Minneapolis safe.

"As much as we're willing to talk about reforms and how police do their job, to me that's secondary to having enough police out there to stop the violence," he said.

Walz said conversations have been cordial this past week with lawmakers and he's hopeful for a policing agreement that includes new regulations on no-knock warrants and data collection on officer misconduct.

"I do believe that Democrats and Republicans, House and Senate do understand that we need to have reforms for policing," he said. "And it is not a simple 'you're for the police, you're against the police,' it's more these are operational things that can make them better."

DFL House Speaker Melissa Hortman said Minneapolis "certainly feels like it's a tinderbox" and lawmakers will be talking more about the violence in the coming weeks. She said she is not sure if the State Patrol legally can have a longer-term presence in helping police Minneapolis.

Working groups that are focused on different areas of the state budget, such as public safety, education and the environment, were supposed to draw up spending spreadsheets by Friday.

Hortman said Friday afternoon that just a few groups will meet that deadline and more details about state spending plans will be available Tuesday.

She said "tons" of information is available to the public compared to what usually is available in a "crammed, last-minute end-of-session situation" where lawmakers might have just minutes to review a 200-page budget bill.

"Everyone knows what's out there, what's being debated. There's the House bill and the Senate bill," Hortman said, and she noted the two weeks of conference committee meetings held in public before the Legislature adjourned. "Some collection of what's in the House and Senate bills will be in the final bill."

But the process for determining what makes the cut is happening outside the public eye.

The working group focused on housing is one of two that held a public hearing after the session concluded. Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, said in addition to that one hearing, she has been talking almost every day with members of the group.

She said legislators do not know what the rules are for how the groups should meet between the regular session and special session.

"It's confusing for us because I would like to have all these work group discussions public, but there's no mechanism for that in the interim," she said.

"Even I don't know, are other work groups talking?"

Last Wednesday, Sen. Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul, posted a video of the empty Capitol on Twitter.

"Somewhere negotiations over Minnesota's $52 billion budget and Minnesota's future are underway. But Minnesotans aren't included. I'm not OK with that, are you?" she said in the video.

However, negotiations behind closed doors — or in this case, via calls and Zoom meetings — are typical at the end of session.

Some legislators and government watchdog groups similarly condemned the opaque decision-making process two years ago.

But the closure of the Capitol building to the public for the past year has exacerbated concerns about transparency.

Hortman said she expects the Capitol will be open to the public before the next special session.

If legislators don't wrap up everything before July 1, state government will shut down. And the consequences could be more dire than they were during the last shutdown a decade ago under Gov. Mark Dayton.

In the past, the courts determined that 80% of state funding could continue during a shutdown. But the Minnesota Supreme Court has since changed that approach.

This isn't the first time that the trio of Walz, Gazelka and Hortman reached a budget deal.

Gazelka noted that they were able to stick to their overarching budget agreement in 2019.

"There's just a lot of policy issues that are very important to both sides that it's hard to find a compromise on those," he said. "But there is genuine work going on that gives me hope we will find our way through."

Jessie Van Berkel • 651-925-5044

Briana Bierschbach • 651-925-5042