After session cumbersome Walz, legislative leaders tout $ 52 billion budget
Considering what has happened over the past 15 months – or even since the 2021 legislative session began in January – it wouldn’t have taken much for Gov. Tim Walz to be in the festive mood. Thursday.
There was the global pandemic that killed 7,600 Minnesotans, a virus-response-induced recession and a peacetime state of emergency – with major disruption for individuals and businesses. There was also the political fallout from the stay-at-home orders that arose out of this emergency – as well as a large projected budget deficit, which was then followed by record surpluses.
All faced political leaders from Minnesota, with Walz in the lead.
Still, it has been a good week for Walz and lawmakers. The legislature ultimately completed a two-year, $ 52 billion state budget with hours to spare before a partial government shutdown. At the same time, the state has encountered at least one measure of a successful vaccination effort: 70 percent of residents 18 and older have received at least one injection.
“A long time ago I said there wouldn’t be a day, like at the end of a war, where all the church bells are ringing and you come out and COVID is over,” said Walz before a signing ceremony for budget bills. . “But today is about as close as it gets, that we’re here, that it’s over.”
This was the first use of the historic Capitol reception hall since March 2020, when the hall was used to announce the first known infection of a Minnesotan and then for Walz to sign a state credit of $ 21 million. dollars for public health. This money seemed important at the time. Fifteen months later, $ 750 million in state dollars – and billions more in federal funds – has been spent to fight the pandemic and deal with its social and economic fallout.
If you try every now and then you will find that you get what you need
The post-legislative committee would have been difficult to predict at the start of the 2021 session. Even before starting, a pre-session Zoom presentation by Walz and the four leaders of the legislative caucus collapsed when the DFLers felt the Republicans were unwilling to declare the 2020 elections over – and that Joe Biden was the rightful winner.
The session then began just after the attack on the U.S. Capitol by supporters of then-President Donald Trump trying to prevent the election from being certified. The Minnesota Capitol, protected by chain-link fences and National Guard units, was still closed to the public.
The slow but steady rollout of vaccines in Minnesota allowed the building to reopen. It also ended partisan fighting over everything from protections for nursing home residents to issues that popped up on a state vaccine tracking website.
A sick economy turned out to be more resilient than expected. With the help of federal money distributed to governments and individuals, deficits became surpluses, making it easier to balance state budgets. Each of the 12 state budget bills has been helped in one way or another by federal dollars.
A small but telling example is the one-time checks for $ 435 to people enrolled in the Minnesota Family Investment Program: the state’s main social grant program. Walz and DFLers have been trying to pass the measure since March 2020; they ultimately succeeded thanks to a health and social services budget backed by US federal bailout money.
Another example: Ending the moratorium on state evictions would have been much more difficult to achieve without $ 672 million in federal money available to help pay rent for people facing eviction.
And it’s not just this year. Session 2022 – in an election year with Walz and the 201 legislative seats on the ballot – will start with $ 2.3 billion in the state’s rainy day fund, $ 1 billion unspent from the grant in the state’s cash from the US bailout – and a surplus that recently tax collections suggest it could be in the range of $ 2 billion.
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka reiterated the obvious on the last day of the session: that a GOP-controlled Senate and a DFL-controlled House have more ways to fail than to succeed, but did what was necessary.
He attributed much of that to the working relationship between himself – an East Gull Lake Tory with gubernatorial aspirations – and House Speaker Melissa Hortman, a Brooklyn Park Liberal. “She kept her word. I kept my word. We have tried to navigate extremely difficult situations, ”Gazelka said.
The two also understood that while neither could ever get everything they wanted, both had to bring victories back to their districts. “How to govern in the middle, which is extremely difficult? Said Gazelka. “When you have to navigate and sit in the middle, no one is really happy.”
For Republicans, one of those victories has been the expansion of the state’s reinsurance program, which relies on public funding to help insurance companies cover policyholders with high medical costs and has helped control health insurance premiums. The GOP also not only blocked any tax increases, but also secured tax cuts for those who received paycheck protection program loans and improved unemployment insurance. Republicans also ended Minnesota’s state of emergency.
For the LDF, the victories included the largest increase in education funding in a decade or more; increases in funding for health and social programs; maintaining the Clean Cars rules to boost sales of electric vehicles; and a 15-day notice to tenants threatened with eviction, directing them to rent assistance under the RentHelpMN program.
A session that started on Zoom ended with almost packed houses in the House and Senate, and Hortman noted the effect a return to the in-person rally had on the process at the Minnesota State Capitol. “Having people in person with each other, able to talk and even laugh, we were able to do a lot more,” she said.
Hortman echoed Gazelka’s description of what happens (and doesn’t) when a Liberal House and a Conservative Senate must come to an agreement. “There are many initiatives that we are defending that have not had the chance to cross the finish line,” she said.
“What was the difficult part, especially on the public safety bill, was navigating so that we could get things that we felt good about, that were worth it, that could pass the Republican Senate.” , she said.
Work to be done on premiums for essential workers
The state budget consists of 13 different parts, each covering a different section of government. As is the case in Minnesota, those same expense bills contain the proceeds of a work session, with dozens of bills slipped through hundreds of pages of legislation. Despite several missed deadlines, lawmakers passed them all in time to avoid a government shutdown. After signing the omnibus tax bill on Thursday, Walz signed the law.
“In a very divided nation, we have done this with the only divided legislature in the country,” Walz said before thanking the leaders of both houses who did not “let partisanship prevail over the commonalities that we have. have and get a budget for Minnesota.
A Minnesota peacetime emergency deal struck this week, while neither easy nor pretty, also satisfies both legislative Republicans and Walz. An amendment to the state government funding bill ended the peacetime state of emergency late Thursday. But another amendment, this one to the tax bill, provided some powers that the governor said were still needed: ensuring the continuation of the enhanced federal food stamp benefits; let him redeploy state workers to their original jobs; and give it powers over vaccinations and testing without having to revert to state laws on tendering and purchasing.
The agreement also gives health officials the ability to declare a health disaster in the future, which would allow the state to respond without imposing another state of emergency in peacetime. Walz could still do it, perhaps if one variant of COVID causes another outbreak. But the change gives the state less radical tools. For weary lawmakers, the deal also means that it will no longer be necessary to return to Capitol Hill in the middle of the month to vote on overturning another 30-day extension to the declaration. They have been in session for at least one day – and often several days – for each of the past 18 months.
The deal meant Republicans were ultimately successful in rescinding Walz’s declaration of emergency. It also led to a further victory for DFL lawmakers in the police accountability package: the ability for the police to simply get people with certain outstanding warrants to sign an acknowledgment that they must appear before. the court rather than make arrests.
The details of a program to pay bonuses to essential workers in the event of a pandemic remain to be defined: those in jobs in health care, long-term care and other essential roles that did not allow work to be done. distance. A nine-member task force – three from the House, three from the Senate and three appointed by Walz – will meet this summer to determine who could get how much from a $ 250 million fund drawn from the state of ARP money.
Essential worker bonuses are one of four uses set out by federal law for money sent directly to state and local governments. “These are the people it was supposed to cover and we’ll make sure we get it out and get it to them.” Walz said.
An extraordinary session will need to be called to approve a plan that must get at least seven votes, an arithmetic that ensures at least one Republican will have to approve the plan.