ST. PAUL — State lawmakers will meet at the Capitol this week for the start of what is set to be an unprecedented legislative session.
Legislators will have to approve a two-year budget and strike deals on additional supports spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic.
They'll again revisit the state's peacetime emergency and whether Gov. Tim Walz should retain his emergency powers under the state's peacetime emergency. And their committee hearings and floor sessions are likely to look different than ever before.
Before they return to St. Paul (or to a virtual session on Zoom) to kick off the 2021 legislative session on Tuesday, Jan. 5. Here are five things to watch.
Lawmakers met in seven special sessions between June and December and they repeatedly debated the state's peacetime emergency and the governor's executive powers. But they also left open a lot of pandemic response measures that some said would be better decided during the regular legislative session.
Democrats and Republicans agree that the state will have to make decisions around additional assistance for businesses, workers and families affected by the pandemic. And they said the state should prioritize policies that can help kickstart the economy coming out of the pandemic.
But they haven't reached agreements yet around what that would look like. Democrats have said lawmakers should act quickly to get aid out to needy families, boost funding to child care providers and work to ensure those experiencing homelessness have shelter.
“I think there’s still a lot that we would consider essentially our leftover priorities that didn’t go away with the turn of the calendar page," Deputy House Majority Leader Liz Olson, D-Duluth, said
Republicans said they'd push to get a better seat at the table in terms of guiding COVID-19 policy and would aim to end the state's peacetime emergency. Under the emergency, the governor is able to exercise broad powers that allow him to bypass the Legislature.
Walz and Democrats have said the powers are needed to quickly react to the pandemic but Republicans argue that the people they represent haven't had their voices represented in those decisions. And Senate leaders have said they'll weigh state budget decisions against Walz's willingness to include them in COVID-19 policymaking.
MORE FROM DANA FERGUSON IN ST. PAUL:
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- Minnesota budget officials project $641 million surplus, a significant swing from earlier estimates
“Once he had emergency powers, that’s where everything fell apart because he was making all the decisions and we could not stop or stand against those decisions. That’s been incredibly frustrating,” Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said last month. “As we come into next year, now it’s a two-year budget and we have to work together. And that’s why I mentioned that we hold the purse strings now. Last year we did not and we want it to be better.”
In the Legislature's first week of session, lawmakers are set to address reopening schools, COVID-19 vaccine rollout, the impact of the pandemic on Minnesotans with disabilities and more.
Emergency power debates back in play
The discussion about whether to end the state's peacetime emergency — and by extension, the governor's emergency powers — will also be up for debate again, but this time without the same parameters as in earlier special sessions.
Republicans have said that they'll again push to have more equal footing in the COVID-19 decision-making and they'll need to win over just a few Democrats or Independents to block another extension of the state's peacetime emergency.
And that could be an easier lift as advocacy groups have begun lobbying a handful of DFL legislators who've voted in favor of ending the governor's executive orders to again support their suspension and put in place laws replacing executive orders that could lapse without the peacetime emergency.
Walz told Minnesota Public Radio that he has no plan to end his emergency powers.
The only thing lawmakers are constitutionally required to do this year is to approve a two-year budget to fund the state. And reaching a roughly $50-billion compromise looks to be a tall order in the divided Statehouse.
State economists in December said the state projected better than expected news with a $641 million surplus expected for the budget ending June 30. But lawmakers will have to decide how to bridge an estimated $1.3 billion gap in the budget starting July 1.
Republican lawmakers have said they hope to close the hole by reducing government spending, while Democrats have said they'd look to find ways to boost revenue, possibly by taxing wealthier Minnesotans.
The legislative session closes out May 17, but lawmakers could call a special session later if they can't finish their work in time. They'll have until June 30 to strike a deal on a budget before they'd face a government shutdown.
While the power structure is set to stay largely the same as the last Legislature with the House of Representatives controlled by Democrats and the Senate led by Republicans, slim majorities in either chamber and alliances with smaller caucuses could create new dynamics.
In the Senate, a pair of lawmakers who'd run as Democratic-Farmer-Labor candidates late last year shifted to become a two-man Independent Caucus. Sens. Tom Bakk, of Cook, and Dave Tomassoni, of Chisholm, broke from the DFL Caucus after Bakk lost a bid for senate minority leader last year. Bakk said the split was an effort to lessen political divides in the Senate and boost civility.
“The political rhetoric has gotten so sharp and so nasty," Bakk told Forum News Service. "I’m hoping that this leads to a conversation about civility and can't we just find a way to work across the aisle, which would be in the best interest of the state, rather than just lobbing bombshells at each other.”
GOP leaders in the Senate gave the two committee chair positions and said they expected the Independents could vote with Republicans on various issues this year. And that would bolster the GOP lead in the Senate or lessen Democrats' edge there.
The current divide in that chamber is 34 Republicans, 31 Democrats and two Independents. Thirty-four votes are needed to pass most legislation.
In the House, meanwhile, Democrats continue to hold a lead, but a smaller one than they did in the previous legislative session. And that means they'll have to keep a tight hold on their caucus to approve their priority legislation.
Overall, the divided Legislature will likely again forge compromise plans between Republicans and Democrats if any policies are to make it to Walz's desk.
A whole lot more time on Zoom
The pandemic is also set to push much of the Legislature's work (at least early on) to virtual hearings and discussions. Over seven special legislative sessions, lawmakers have practiced new procedures to call in for floor votes or speak to committees online.
And those will be back in full force as lawmakers reconvene with the pandemic still bearing down on Minnesota.
House Speaker Melissa Hortman, D-Brooklyn Park, has said much of the House's work will be done virtually, including Tuesday's swearing-in ceremonies that will be conducted in large part with lawmakers calling in from their homes.
Gazelka, meanwhile, has said senators will push for a hybrid model of committee hearings and floor sessions partially online and partially in-person.
Forum News Service reporter Sarah Mearhoff contributed to this report. Follow Dana Ferguson on Twitter @bydanaferguson, call 651-290-0707 or email firstname.lastname@example.org