ST. PAUL — Minnesota lawmakers this week pressed on with their attempts to negotiate a $52 billion state budget and almost all of their conversations took place in secret.
More than a week after the Minnesota Legislature adjourned without tackling its biggest responsibility for the year, a dozen working groups met to hammer out specifics of how money for schools, public safety, roads and bridges and health care programs should be spent. Because they were not in formal session, all but two opted to hold their meetings privately, with no public access.
Legislative leaders on Monday, May 17, struck a deal for the overall framework of the budget and they handed down the totals that each group would have available to them. But they left it up to those groups to decide how much money goes to individual programs or offices and left undecided several questions around public policy.
And while top officials said they were hopeful legislators could strike a deal and write a plan that could make it through the divided Statehouse, some of their biggest disagreements remained unresolved as they neared a key deadline.
Gov. Tim Walz, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, and House Speaker Melissa Hortman, D-Brooklyn Park, last week asked each of the groups to post an outline of their plans on Friday, May 28, and have fuller bills worked up a week later. It wasn't clear a day before the deadline that the groups would meet that goal.
“We do believe that many but not necessarily all will meet our deadline of tomorrow,” Gazelka told Forum News Service on Thursday, May 27. “So, we’ll see.”
Gazelka and Walz on Thursday said divides remained between Democrats and Republicans over proposals to re-write policing laws, change state rules to limit vehicle emissions and end the governor's executive powers under Minnesota's peacetime emergency for COVID-19.
Senate Republicans threatened to hold up Minnesota's environmental budget if the Walz administration failed to delay the so-called "Clean Cars" rule by two years. And House Democrats said they would stall out budget talks unless a package of police accountability measures passed into law.
Leaders this week suggested that they'd not moved the needle on those issues, but still felt confident they could pass a budget by June 30, preventing a government shutdown.
"We've been talking all this week and I'm getting the impression that there is conversation happening and that there's movement on both sides around reforms," Walz told reporters on Thursday.
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Advocates, lawmakers and others this week asked officials to open up the budget talks to ensure transparency. And they raised concerns about the problems that could arise if legislators limited public oversight over the debates and ultimate product.
"To the extent to which none of the information becomes available until the very, very, very, very end, they put it on the table and say, 'Here's the deal, pass it,' I think increases the likelihood that in any number of provisions — large or small — but certainly important to somebody, there could be mistakes," said Bradley Peterson, Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities executive director.
Gazelka said conference committees held weeks of hearings on each of the bills before the legislative session came to a close, so advocates, interest groups and others could have a sense of what was going into the closed talks and where the sticking points emerged. And fuller details would emerge once the groups posted their proposals.
“The situation where we’re not in session and we’re waiting to get into special session is sort of unique," he said, "but both sides are just trying to find solutions and get done so we don’t go into shutdown."
Lawmakers are expected to return to St. Paul for a June 14 special session where they'll vote on each of the budget bills and consider ending the state's COVID-19 peacetime emergency.