Minnesota's divided Legislature is entering the final stretch.
After a busy winter of remote hearings on bills, lawmakers are now racing toward a May 17 deadline to strike a deal on a more than $50 billion two-year state budget and a handful of other tax and policy issues. If they don't, the Republican-controlled Senate and DFL House will have to head into an overtime session.
Here are some of the key issues we're tracking this session and where they stand, with just a few weeks remaining in the regular 2021 session.
Bonding: The Legislature typically passes a large public works borrowing bill in even-numbered years, and last October, legislators approved a historic $1.9 billion bill. However, smaller bonding measures often pass in odd years — when the main focus is the state budget — and Gov. Tim Walz proposed a $518 million state infrastructure package this year, which includes funding for building projects at colleges and universities, Twin Cities communities damaged by unrest, housing and Capitol security.
The House has discussed numerous infrastructure projects this session, but the Senate's Capital Investment Committee has met only once and has not held hearings on any projects. Yet bonding bills can come together quickly in the final days of session. Whether President Joe Biden's massive proposed infrastructure package affects state bonding negotiations this year remains to be seen.
Budget: Walz proposed a nearly $52.3 billion budget in March, updating his vision for the next two years of spending after the state's economic outlook flipped from a projected deficit to a $1.6 billion surplus. The DFL-led House has released a similar $52.5 billion plan, with Democrats contending the state needs to raise some taxes to pay for increased spending on education and other areas. The Republican majority in the Senate has proposed a $51.9 billion budget and is looking for ways to trim state spending.
Legislators are rolling out detailed omnibus packages — that's Legislature-speak for bills containing a variety of budget or policy proposals that are supposed to be related to one topic, such as housing or higher education. After the House and Senate pass their omnibus bills, the two chambers must sort through their differences and negotiate with the Walz administration. The goal is to reach a deal before the Legislature adjourns on May 17. However, the ultimate deadline to pass a budget and avoid a government shutdown is June 30.
Another factor is the expected influx of $2.6 billion from the latest federal relief package. When that money will arrive in state coffers is unclear, and legislators differ on how to factor the one-time dollars into the next budget.
Election law: The election of 2020 has hovered over the debate on new state voting law proposals in more ways than one this session. Although no evidence exists of widespread voter fraud, Senate Republicans cited the threat of voting fraud more generally in proposing a new voter ID law that would require photo identification at polling places. Democrats have pointed to that and other proposals as part of a nationwide trend of Republican lawmakers seeking to make it more difficult to vote. That measure did not make it into a Senate omnibus bill introduced this week — although its chief sponsor, Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, has said it was brought up this session with an eye toward stoking further debate in 2022 when all 201 seats of the Legislature are again up for grabs. The Senate's GOP leadership is still proposing provisional balloting for voters who register on Election Day, something Secretary of State Steve Simon is warning would "dismantle" Minnesota's same-day voter registration system and its history of high voter turnout. Republicans also want to eliminate a state law allowing others to vouch for the eligibility of voters.
Democrats in the state House, meanwhile, want to pass legislation that would restore voting rights to people on probation — but not incarcerated — for felony crimes. Democrats in the House also want to automatically register Minnesotans to vote when they are certified for a driver's license. Few of the top priorities in either chamber have much of a chance to net common ground this year. But state officials like Simon are hopeful that some temporary measures adopted during the COVID-19 pandemic — including giving election workers 14 days to count early ballots as opposed to seven — can become permanent.
Emergency powers: Republicans in the House and Senate have introduced a slew of proposals that would chip away at the executive powers Walz has used to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. Bills to allow businesses to open during the pandemic if they have a safety plan in place and another to give school districts the power to close or stay open passed the full Senate and are teed up for end-of-session negotiations. The Senate also passed a measure that would not allow the state of emergency to continue unless both the House and Senate agreed to extend it.
After a series of hearings on emergency powers this session, a handful of House Democrats also want the governor to be required to report to all legislators the rationale and specific legal authority for each order after 30 days under a state of emergency. Each order or rule would expire on the 37th day of the peacetime emergency unless ratified by a majority vote of each house of the Legislature. As more people are vaccinated and the pandemic winds down, Democrats may be more willing to strike a deal on changes to the governor's emergency powers to get concessions on other parts of the state budget.
DFL House Speaker Melissa Hortman has suggested state leaders could "scale down" Walz's emergency powers after the legislative session ends. But she said they would have Walz retain executive powers in some specific areas, including running vaccination and testing sites.
Guns: The prospect of any new firearms legislation under divided government in Minnesota is slim to none this session. DFL priorities such as expanding background checks or passing a new "red flag" to remove guns from people deemed dangerous received scant attention for most of the 2021 session, until a resurgence in mass shootings around the country revived momentum in the spring. Still, Republican Senate leaders refused to consider the proposals — which also failed to pass the Legislature each of the previous two years Walz has been in office and Democrats controlled the House. A GOP-favored "stand your ground" bill to strengthen legal protections for citizens who use deadly force to defend themselves or their property is also not likely to advance this year, with Senate leadership more focused on the budget instead of passing new policy. Meanwhile, a DFL proposal to ban firearms on the Capitol complex amid heightened security concerns also failed to gain momentum.
Marijuana: Democrats in the House have pushed a proposal to legalize marijuana for adult use through a handful of committees already, the first time in state history such a proposal has ever made it this far. The bill would legalize recreational marijuana for adults, set up a marketplace for selling it and establish two tiers of expungement for people with prior cannabis convictions. People with misdemeanor, cannabis-only convictions would automatically have their records expunged, and any higher-level convictions would go before an expungement review board. But despite a handful of Republicans who have supported the bill in the House, the GOP-led Senate has signaled no interest in legalizing marijuana for adult use. They have, however, gotten behind a push to add the raw flower version of marijuana for adults to the state's medical marijuana program. Minnesota's program currently only allows the more expensive cannabis oils and extracts.
Page Amendment: A broad coalition of public officials and interest groups want the state Legislature to forward an amendment to the statewide ballot that would ask voters whether the Minnesota Constitution should include a provision that a quality education for all students is a civil right. Led by former Supreme Court Justice Alan Page and Minneapolis Federal Reserve President Neel Kashkari, backers say it's meant to strike at the state's long-standing gap in educational outcomes between white students and students of color. The measure has produced unusual alliances, with prominent liberals and conservatives in state politics on both sides of the issue. The proposal had a March hearing in a state House committee. But Walz and Hortman are not on board, and Senate Leader Paul Gazelka has been noncommittal, making success unlikely this year. Advocates say they will continue to push the proposal and are likely to try again next year to get it on the 2022 statewide ballot.
Police reform: The Legislature passed a major police reform package last summer in the aftermath of widespread outrage over George Floyd's killing. But most Democrats and community activists insist much more needs to be done, while Republicans and law enforcement groups say that police agencies have not had enough time to train their officers on the new use-of-force mandates. Those wanting more from the Legislature are calling for bills to end qualified immunity for officers and establish citizen oversight panels for police. Activists, who recently rallied outside the site of Derek Chauvin's Hennepin County trial, also urged the Legislature to pass a bill to regulate no-knock search warrants and a measure to require professional liability insurance for each police officer.
Republican critics remain leery of the state overstepping local police oversight while also pointing to the decision by departments in neighboring states to hold off on pursuing suspects who cross over from Minnesota over fears that they could run afoul of Minnesota's new requirements. Disagreements over funding and police accountability have stalled talks to set up a state fund to reimburse law enforcement agencies who help respond to emergencies like the civil unrest that rocked the Twin Cities last year.
PPP: The divided Legislature and Walz agree that there should be tax breaks for businesses that received federal payroll loans during the pandemic, they just don't agree on how much. Senate Republicans are pushing full conformity with the federal government, which moved last year to exempt all forgivable Paycheck Protection Loan income from taxes. In his revised budget, Walz also included exemptions for PPP loans, but businesses that got more than $350,000 in the loans would have to pay some taxes. A plan from the DFL-led House mirrors Walz's proposal.In terms of other pandemic-related tax relief, all sides agree that Minnesotans who received unemployment benefits during the pandemic should get a tax break on up to $10,200 of that income.
Taxes: One of the biggest clashes of the session is shaping up around whether to raise taxes on some Minnesotans to help pay for programs for those hit hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic. Walz and House Democrats are pitching a new fifth tier income tax increase on the state's highest earners — married joint filers making $1 million or more, and single filers making $500,000 a year — as well as higher taxes on corporations. On top of that, House Democrats are also pitching a new gas tax increase and other transportation related fees.But Republicans have drawn a hard line against new tax increases this year, arguing the state has a surplus and should be providing relief for taxpayers coming out of the pandemic.