ST. PAUL — Leaders of the divided Minnesota Legislature reached a stalemate Thursday, June 18, on the eve of what Senate leaders considered the final day of a legislative special session.
Disagreements over police accountability plans and additions to a proposal to allocate federal COVID-19 relief funds to cities and counties threatened the passage of those proposals as well as other measures that would allow the state to borrow for public construction projects and re-write the state's tax codes.
In dueling news conferences, legislative leaders and the governor challenged members of the opposite political party to accept proposals they were advancing. And they set battle lines for what they expected to accomplish in the next 24 hours.
Gov. Tim Walz, several members of his cabinet and Democratic-Farmer-Labor lawmakers again dug in and pressed Republicans who control the Minnesota Senate to advance a slate of police accountability measures put forth by lawmakers of color and Indigenous lawmakers. Senators approved a handful of those Tuesday but expressed resistance at putting the attorney general in charge of investigating instances of police deadly force and allowing felons who've completed their prison sentence to vote.
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, meanwhile, said Democrats shouldn't expect the GOP-controlled Senate to pass bills that haven't already received bipartisan support and he reiterated that senators would keep their Friday night deadline to end the special session. He said lawmakers that added spending or more policy to bills already passed by the Senate could sink them as they return for consideration.
House lawmakers planned to move to the floor to pass extensive police accountability law changes Thursday night, while the Senate was set to return and wrap up its business Friday morning. And with mere hours on the clock, there was no public construction project bill available to the public, disagreements remained on the policing plans and DFL lawmakers were preparing to move forward a bill outlining federal COVID-19 relief funding with additions that Republicans considered a "poison pill."
“So far, we’re still in gridlock," Walz told reporters. "So far, we’ve had this entire week to move things, but now is the time."
Meetings between legislative leaders and the governor continued Thursday night. And some remained more optimistic that lawmakers might be able to strike deals before Friday evening. But Gazelka warned that Democrats shouldn't substantially alter policies that had been agreed to or amend bills the Senate had already advanced.
"They agree with everything that we have put in those bills. So if they send back all of those bills with all kinds of things that we don’t agree with, they jeopardize all the reforms that we could do,” Gazelka said. “Everything that I mentioned is absolutely in the range of getting done. But if you want to expand that dramatically, then they may not get done."
And he said there was a tentative deal for a $1.35 billion bonding bill. But other leaders hadn't confirmed that total, nor had a list of projects within the bill been publicly released Thursday.
Democrats who control the House of Representatives pushed back on the Friday deadline to finish a bonding bill, tax bill, the next round of COVID-19 aid and policing law reforms. And they said they would be reluctant to budge on the slate of police accountability bills put forth by lawmakers of color.
“The artificial deadline is making this very difficult. I think we are this close to getting something on bonding and the Republican requirement of a tax bill,” House Speaker Melissa Hortman, D-Brooklyn Park, said, holding up a hand with two fingers coming close to one another. “There’s no reason that we couldn’t wrap this up very very soon.”
Walz said he would view it as a "total failure" to leave Friday without approving all of the top priority legislation and had meetings scheduled with legislative leaders late Thursday.
Funding for cities, counties on the line
Earlier in the day, members of the House Ways and Means Committee advanced a bill that threatened to unravel compromises at the Capitol.
Leaders from both chambers and both political parties struck a deal on how to allocate $841 million in federal COVID-19 aid funds to counties and cities. The Senate approved the bill on a bipartisan basis Tuesday, but House Democrats amended the bill in committee Thursday, possibly requiring lawmakers from both chambers to come back and resolve differences between the two bills if the full House approved it.
Republicans on the committee said the move to add $30 million in additional local government grants, make payments to families on the Minnesota Family Investment Program and approve an increase in reimbursement rates for the Child Care Assistance Program and personal care attendants fouled up the deal made between legislative leaders. And they warned the move could sink other top priorities, like a bonding bill, tax bill and policing law reforms.
“Where I come from back on the farm, a deal is a deal,” Rep. Greg Davids, R-Preston, said. “This is extremely disappointing.”
Democrats on the panel said the addition didn't affect the proposed appropriations for cities and counties and would also benefit communities struggling due to the pandemic. And they said Senate Republicans forced their hand by setting a Friday deadline to end the special session.
"I do believe it works in tandem in making our communities stronger and healthier," Rep. Paul Marquart, D-Dilworth, said.