ST. PAUL — With less than a week to go before they hit their June 30 deadline, Minnesota lawmakers are pushing through their series of 13 budget bills in order to keep state agencies and services open and funded past July 1.
The Democratic-controlled House on Thursday, June 24, voted 72-59 to advance a housing budget, which can now move on to the Senate for its approval before it heads to Gov. Tim Walz’s desk for his signature.
Of note in the housing budget is a phaseout plan for Walz’s months-long eviction moratorium, put in place at the start of the coronavirus pandemic and resulting economic crash. The budget bill phases out the moratorium 105 days after it is enacted into law, buying renters time to get up to date with overdue rent, utilizing state assistance if they qualify. Landlords will be required to give tenants 15 days notice before eviction.
To the ire of Republicans, Walz has maintained his emergency executive powers for more than one year, citing the eviction moratorium as a major reason to maintain authority. Without the moratorium or a backup plan, he said, struggling Minnesotans could be evicted onto the streets amid a pandemic. The moratorium has also been the subject of a recent lawsuit filed by Minnesota landlords.
State Rep. Alice Hausman, D-Saint Paul, who chairs the House's Housing Finance and Policy Committee, said in a Thursday statement that the budget "doesn’t solve all the vexing issues associated with housing insecurity, but as we emerge from COVID-19, this bill will help many Minnesotans recover.”
Democrats say their House File 4’s coronavirus rental assistance program, paired with requirements for landlords to notify their tenants of impending eviction, will help get overdue rent to landlords, while keeping struggling renters from home insecurity. They also say the program is an off-ramp from Walz’s executive powers, which Republicans have sought to strip for months now.
State Rep. Tama Theis, R-St. Cloud, said in a statement after Thursday’s floor vote that the Legislature is “removing one of the final excuses for the governor to hang on to his emergency powers.”
"We need to end the peacetime emergency and restore the Legislature as a co-equal branch of government,” she said.
Over in the Senate, senators on Thursday unanimously passed a transportation budget by a 67-0 vote, one day after the House gave its OK. The bill can now move to Walz’s desk for his signature, and just in the nick of time: Walz earlier this week said that, without a transportation bill complete by Thursday, the state would begin notifying contractors of the state’s inability to pay them for construction projects.
'On the brink' of finishing the budget
At a Capitol news conference with reporters on Thursday, Walz said lawmakers are "right on the brink of being able to tie up a lot of this stuff," and that he is still confident no state agencies will be forced into a shutdown.
"We're on the path to getting a really good budget for Minnesotans — certainly later than we'd like to, but it will be done," he said.
Some of the largest pieces of the budget, K-12 education and health and human services, have finally seen bipartisan breakthroughs in leadership negotiations, though that haven't yet gotten floor votes. House and Senate committees did approve their K-12 budget agreements on Thursday, marking a step forward before floor votes.
The education budget includes a 2.45% funding increase over current levels in the first year and a 2% increase over that amount in the second year — the largest increase for education in 15 years. Walz told reporters Thursday that greater investments in education will help children, and ultimately the state, recover from the pandemic.
Still, public safety remains the greatest sticking point between Republican and Democratic negotiators. Walz said that he thinks the public safety and judiciary will be the final budget bill to make it across the finish line, though he rejected the possibility of shutting down state agencies past deadline, or passing a bare-bones budget just to buy some time lawmakers continue to negotiate past July 1.
"No, I'm telling them that's not what we're looking for," he said. "They know what needs to be done."
With Republicans in control of the Senate and urgency to pass the budget, Walz said there will be Democrats who will be disappointed by the ultimate bill. Since George Floyd died at the hands of Minneapolis Police in 2020, Democrats — particularly the Legislature's People of Color and Indigenous Caucus — have pushed for widespread police reforms to address disproportionate rates of police violence toward and incarceration of Minnesotans of color.
Senate Republicans have blocked a number of those proposals, and Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, maintained this week that Republicans will shut down policies that they see as preventing police from doing their jobs.
"It's inevitable that this is going to be a bill that's going to disappoint some folks who are looking for more change that needs to be done," Walz said Thursday. "When you're trying to negotiate with someone and their position is, they don't need anything, they don't want anything, they don't want to change, it's very difficult to move them along."
Last-minute negotiations 'unacceptable'
Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent, D-Woodbury, made a floor speech Thursday criticizing the Legislature's down-to-the-wire budget negotiations, saying that lawmakers should be further along with less than one week before potential shutdowns. Even if all the budgets clear Walz's desk just in time, state agencies have begun scrambling to prepare for potential shutdowns and Kent said lawmakers "are overall not doing the best that we can for the people of Minnesota."
Kent said leaders knew they couldn't have the budget tied up by the end of the Legislature's regular session in May because of last-minute, big-dollar coronavirus assistance from the federal government.
"We were going to need a little bit of time to figure that out," Kent said, but "we could have done better and had more done... and done this in an orderly way and done it more quickly and not pushed to this brink. We are too close."
On Friday, the House will debate the state's employment and environment budgets. Working into the weekend, they'll take up education, health and bonding budgets on Saturday.