ST. PAUL — It's over.
After five months and a one-day special session, the Minnesota Legislature wrapped up its constitutional requirement to finish a balanced state budget.
Lawmakers emerged from the 21-hour marathon of debates and stop-and-go negotiations in the nation's only divided Legislature Saturday, May 25, with a $48 billion two-year budget and a strong desire to go back to bed.
After deadlocking over key issues for months, legislators squared away a compromise proposal that left everyone a little unhappy.
Republicans blocked a DFL-supported gas tax hike, Democrats saved a tax on medical providers that was set to expire and in thousands of pages of bills outlining state government spending they came down somewhere in the middle on various other spending decisions and policies.
"I think for both sides they'd say it is a draw," Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said Saturday just after the 7 a.m. deadline to end the special session. "You just don't get everything you want in divided government; sometimes you get things you don't want at all."
They also approved funding increases to public schools and an income tax cut on middle-income Minnesotans as part of the massive plan.
Gov. Tim Walz on Saturday morning said he planned to sign the bills into law in coming days.
While lawmakers said they were glad to finish the special session before the 7 a.m. deadline Saturday, many called for a new path forward at the Capitol.
“Everyone I talk to around the Capitol says this (session) really was the worst, and it was bad,” House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said. "Ultimately, we together need to figure out how this never happens again."
Leader court ruled out of order
Things at the Capitol were supposed to change this year.
Leaders set deadlines for moving bills and sending spending targets and when they tried to hit them, they missed. After a series of blow-ups, House Speaker Melissa Hortman, D-Brooklyn Center, Gazelka, R-Nisswa, and Walz took budget talks behind closed doors, earning them the reputation of "leader court" or the "tribunal."
On Sunday, May 19, the trio gave committee chairs the totals they should spend. And a day later, lawmakers missed their deadline to finish the session on time. The leader court went into overdrive, asking the chairpeople of different committees to meet them to hash out their bills before they could come before the House or Senate.
Lawmakers returned to the Capitol Friday with a sense of frustration about getting edged out by the leader court and the lack of transparency as the trio decided with chairs how to spend more than $48 billion.
In various debates on the House and Senate floors, lawmakers took jabs at the majority leaders and pushed back on their lack of a say in which bills got wrapped up in the omnibus spending bills that were signed by Gazelka, Hortman and Walz. They questioned bill authors about their interactions with the "tribunal" and pushed back on rules set by majority leaders to limit amendments that could be brought on the bills.
“I want to throw up when I hear that anymore tonight,” Rep. Dave Baker, R-Willmar, said as he talked about an amendment he proposed to the health and human services spending bill.
Another lawmaker filed a bill that would cut the size of the Legislature down to two members: one senator and one representative. The proposal was a joke, but one aimed at thumbing dozens of lawmakers' noses at the leaders and governor.
House and Senate Minority Leaders, who were left out of most of the closed-door negotiating, echoed some of those comments. Though they lamented being outside the room where the deals happened, they put up minimal efforts to block the bipartisan spending bills on the floor.
A long-time legislative leader says budget negotiations this year violated the Minnesota state government’s basic rules.
“The Constitution is framed that the Legislature is its own branch of government …” Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, said Saturday, May 25, minutes after the special legislative session adjourned. “I sure hope people think back on that and decide that under the separation of powers in our Constitution this is not how this process is supposed to work.”
House-Senate conference committees should negotiate final bills between the two bodies, with legislative leaders getting involved only when the committees cannot solve an issue, Bakk said. Only then should the governor have a say, the senator added.
“It was as bad a process as I have ever seen,” he said.
But at least one of the leaders disagreed.
“This was a fantastic session, it was actually the most transparent session that we’ve had in the Legislature in my entire service,” Hortman said. “Every bill we voted here in special session had been aired, people had seen it, people had time to read it.”
That differed from previous years, Hortman said, where lawmakers were expected to vote on bills before knowing what they contained and with limited testimony on the ideas.
Daudt made clear his frustration with the closed-door budget-drafting and leveraged his caucus's ability to fast track bills through the House in one day, rather than three, in exchange for a stronger voice leading into the 2020 legislative session.
Daudt said that Walz “I believe made … a commitment to me that they will include the minority in negotiations in the future, and I think that is wise.”
Gazelka and Hortman defended the way they did their work and welcomed recommendations for improvement.
And at least one lawmaker stood poised to take them up on the offer.
'There have to be controls'
Rep. Gene Pelowski, D-Winona, who chairs the temporarily-dormant Subcommittee on Legislative Process Reform, said lawmakers prioritized bringing thousands of bills, rather than their constitutional responsibility to balance a state budget this year. That thrust them into legislative limbo at session's end and later a special session.
"You cannot put an infinite number of items in a finite process and expect anything other than a breakdown," Pelowski said. "The system simply can't take it and there have to be controls."
While there was little interest in his committee and efforts to improve the legislative system last year, after getting closed out of some budget talks, legislators were coming around to holding hearings before the Legislature comes back to work in February.