What to expect from 2021 Minnesota legislative session
Pandemic will affect Minnesota lawmakers’ priorities and how they’ll meet starting Tuesday
ST. PAUL -- Like it has for the entire nation in 2020, the coronavirus pandemic will loom over the 2021 Minnesota Legislature when it reconvenes Tuesday.
The virus’s presence will be felt from how and when — or if — lawmakers meet in person to balance a two-year budget amid an uncertain economy, to how — or if — Gov. Tim Walz retains his unprecedented emergency powers to dictate the terms of commerce and society in the face of arguably the greatest public health crisis in the history of the state.
And it will be felt personally, as COVID-19 has already reached its claws inside the Capitol itself. A week before Christmas, Sen. Jerry Relph, R-St. Cloud, died of complications of COVID-19, the first state lawmaker to be felled by the virus. Other lawmakers have had the virus, and some have lost family to it.
Amid it all, there will be the taxing, spending and policy priorities — some COVID-related, some not — that lawmakers from each party feel their constituents have elected them to enact.
Here’s what to expect:
Primer: Divided government
Minnesota government will be even more narrowly split for the next two years than it has been for the past two. Each party controls one of the two chambers — a dynamic that creates a tug-of-war between partisan gridlock and the necessity of bipartisanship.
The Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party will still control the House, but their majority is slim: 70-64. The DFL slightly lost ground in November’s election. To pass legislation, 68 votes are needed, so Democrats will need to either maintain strict unity, or seek support from Republicans. This is the challenge for House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, and an opportunity for Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, who will seek to disrupt the Democrats’ control.
The Republican Party has maintained control of the Senate, but by the slimmest of margins, as Republicans slightly lost ground in November’s election. There will be 34 Republicans in the chamber where 34 votes are needed to pass legislation.
However, that majority is fluid. After the election, two longtime DFL senators from the Iron Range, Tom Bakk of Cook and David Tomassoni of Chisholm, formed their own independent caucus, breaking with the DFL and setting themselves up as possible power brokers. Tomassoni was elected president of the Senate and Bakk granted several influential committee posts. Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said in an interview that he expects Bakk and Tomassoni to align with Republicans “at least 90% of the time,” while Bakk remained cagey when asked about that idea. Thus, the challenge for Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent, DFL-Woodbury, will be how to make her DFL caucus influential when, at least on paper, they only have 31 members.
Walz, a Democrat, of course, has the power of the veto pen for any proposal that crosses his desk.
How will they meet?
That partisan landscape is merely the backdrop. At the foreground is how lawmakers will actually carry out their business and its traditions — cheek-to-jowl conversations between the marble pillars of the Capitol under the din of chanting activists — amid a virus that exploits such interactions.
Like so much of America’s uniquely partisan split over the pandemic, Minnesota’s divided Legislature is shaping up to be a tale of two chambers over their approaches to how to actually conduct business.
Gazelka, the Republican Senate leader, emphasizes the importance of returning to face-to-face interactions, while House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, sounded a note that was more cautious and more amicable to legislating via videoconference.
Legally, each chamber can set its own rules on such matters. When the session formally begins Jan. 5, the general public will not be allowed to observe in person, and lobbyists won’t be huddling outside lawmakers’ offices. Meetings with lawmakers will generally be by appointment only, and committee meetings and public hearings can be watched via video. St. Paul’s bustling Capitol will remain eerily quiet, at least at first.
Gazelka sketched out a timeline that seeks to improve videoconferencing to allow hybrid meetings — those involving lawmakers both in person and via video — by late January or February. He said that by March, he’s hoping lawmakers older than 70 will be vaccinated and that most members will begin to feel safe enough to return in person. “God willing,” he said, “we will have all of us here by May” when the final crucial negotiations take place.
“The goal (is) getting everybody back here because we definitely do better work when everybody’s here,” he said.
By contrast, Winkler said he was optimistic that lawmakers could function remotely, as they mostly have been since March. He eschewed the notion of hybrid meetings. “Many people will feel pressured to be there even if they don’t feel safe,” he said in an interview. “The Capitol is not like other workplaces because there are real power dynamics in play, and people don’t necessarily feel like they can refuse.”
The House will commence its business fully remotely, Winkler said, with a minimal contingent of constitutionally required lawmakers present. DFL leaders, he said, won’t entertain returning to in-person business “until we are confident it’s safe.” He placed no timeline on that.
Early test: Walz's powers
An early test of the balance of power in the Legislature could be an attempt to strip Walz of his emergency powers, which he, like governors across the nation, essentially granted himself in the spring when the coronavirus began to spread. The powers have been extended numerous times since, with the blessing of his fellow statewide elected state officials, all Democrats.
Republicans have made numerous failed attempts to strip him of the powers. The move has succeeded in the Senate, but the House has failed to take a vote. A number of Republicans have been privately expressing optimism that they’ll succeed when the new Legislature convenes, but Winkler said the maneuver stood “not a chance” in the House.
If Walz were to be stripped of the powers, the impacts would be widespread and immediate; it would eliminate such changes as a statewide moratorium on evictions and expansion of unemployment eligibility for untold numbers of people affected by the pandemic.
This issue might be rendered less relevant if the pandemic begins to wane as vaccinations increase and if Walz correspondingly eases restrictions.
Must do: Balance the budget
There is one essential task for lawmakers: Both chambers must approve a balanced two-year budget that will earn Walz’s signature. If this isn’t done, state government will shut down over the summer.
The budget-balancing effort will begin in earnest in March, after a revised budget forecast is released by the state’s Office of Management and Budget in coordination with the state economist and private financial advisers. The most recent forecast, in early December, painted a mixed picture: The state faces a projected surplus of $641 million, but the following two years will result in deficits if changes aren’t made. For context, the state’s current two-year budget is $48.3 billion.
The ambiguity of the situation allows both parties to make arguments to support their ideologies: Republicans argue that now is the time to not to raise taxes, but to dip into the state’s cash reserves and make cuts. Democrats argue that the uneven nature of the pandemic’s economic toll necessitates expanding some government programs, and that the wealthy should be taxed more.
That’s a gross simplification of a central disagreement that will surely dominate much of the coming months.
Redistricting, voter ID and George Floyd
Another item lawmakers will be obliged to tackle is the once-a-decade effort of redrawing the boundaries of their own districts, as well as Minnesota’s congressional districts, based on the new census. It’s a task fraught with partisan divide — and as such, every attempt in recent decades has wound up in the state Supreme Court, which has appointed a bipartisan panel to sort it out. Numerous Capitol veterans expect, regardless of the course or substance of the 2021 efforts, they will ultimately meet the same fate.
Both Winkler and Gazelka said they’ve cautioned their members that they should lower their expectations for core policy initiatives, with Winkler even suggesting that few “of the most progressive” proposals will be allowed to reach the House floor. Both men listed several reasons, including various practical limits of working in the reality of COVID and the need for bipartisanship with such closely divided chambers.
Nonetheless, the caucuses have their priorities.
Gazelka, for example, said Republicans would likely be pushing for voting restrictions, such as a photo ID requirement for voters. Voters defeated such a notion by nearly 8 percentage points in a 2012 ballot question to amend the state constitution, and Winkler said the idea would have “no chance” in the House.
Democrats will have to figure out which aspects of a far-reaching racial justice plan they will pursue. This regular legislative session will be the first since George Floyd was killed in the hands of Minneapolis police. In late December, the House Select Committee on Racial Justice, chaired by Rep. Rena Moran, DFL-St. Paul, issued a 45-page report that calls for a range of changes to a host of sectors, from public safety to housing to economic development.
From his perch as potential dealmaker in the Senate’s independent caucus, Bakk said he will push a public construction plan to pay for maintenance and repairs to state buildings. Such a “bonding bill,” which he said could easily top $250 million, might provide fertile ground for horse trading to resolve disagreements over budget priorities. Bakk also said he’ll push for a $120 million plan to improve broadband internet service for those with inadequate options for modern needs.
One wild card: How will the new Congress — and the new White House — approach COVID relief? If they enact additional large spending plans, the pressure will be off state lawmakers to act, although Gazelka is angling to have state lawmakers gain oversight of any such funds. But if Congress fails to act and Minnesotans in economically vulnerable areas continue to be hammered, the situation might change.
In the end, the basic dynamic of the session will probably be this: Democrats will be trying to enact changes, while Republicans will be trying to stop them.
When asked about priorities, Winkler rattled off COVID-related programs that have also been long favored by Democrats, including housing assistance, aid to poor families and help for child care providers — all of which carry price tags.
When asked the same question, Gazelka said this: “It’s as much about what we’re not going to do. … We’re not going to look to new revenues, new taxes.”
Dave Orrick can be reached at email@example.com, or on Twitter at @DaveOrrick.