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 roughly $52 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 a little over a week 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 a few times. 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.
The House and Senate passed 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. Now the two chambers are sorting through their differences in joint conference committees and must negotiate with the Walz administration. The goal is to wrap up the budget 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.
Though the measure did not make it into the Senate omnibus bill being debated in conference committee, the GOP-led Senate passed it as a standalone bill earlier this month on a strictly party-line vote. It is roundly opposed by Democrats, who control the state House. But 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 — such as business and school closures, mask mandates and social distancing requirements — that Walz has used to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. But with agreement with the DFL-controlled House unlikely on those measures, Republicans are now saying they might only support a basic "lights on budget" to keep government operations running unless Walz ends the peacetime state of emergency, which has enabled him to issue sweeping mandates. Walz and Democrats have said he still needs the powers to continue vaccination efforts, testing and keep federal funds flowing to the state. They hope the governor's announcement of a plan to phase out all restrictions and mandates by this summer will ease pressure on ending the emergency powers as part of end-of-session negotiations.
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 dozen committees, 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. The proposal is expected to land on the House floor for a full vote by the end of the regular session on May 17.
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. The April police killing of Daunte Wright in Brooklyn Center further intensified debate over the future of policing in Minnesota. Democrats added to an already sweeping slate of police reforms new proposals to limit when police can stop motorists and an effort to curb the need for arrests in cases where people have missed court dates for certain lower-level charges.
The Senate GOP has insisted on focusing on passing a budget this session, while Democrats are proposing at least a dozen new police accountability bills. They also include a ban on law enforcement affiliating with white supremacist groups, model policies for responding to public assemblies, citizen review boards for law enforcement, limiting no-knock warrants and ending qualified immunity for police. At a recent news conference, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka singled out ending qualified immunity as a measure that the GOP would not support but did not detail possible policing bills that his caucus may agree to this 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.