ST. PAUL -- Minnesotans elected 201 legislators to make critical decisions, but most were shut out of final negotiations that led to a special session wrapping up their work for the year.
Many of them did not hesitate Friday, May 24, to express their frustration that the governor and two legislative leaders made the final budget and policy decisions.
“When we signed up and took our oath of office, we were empowered, not muzzled,” an emotional Sen. Charles Wiger, DFL-Maplewood, said Friday, May 24, expressing a common complaint.
His comments came in an unsuccessful attempt to amend an environmental bill after the big three signed an agreement to oppose any amendments during what they hoped was a one-day session to finish passing a $48 billion, two-year state budget.
Wiger’s provision, which would ban most use of cancer-causing trichloroethylene, had bipartisan support, he said, but did not make it into final legislation approved by Democratic Gov. Tim Walz, Republican Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka and Democratic House Speaker Melissa Hortman.
“I wasn’t part of this cone of silence, this secrecy, of bills being negotiated in the dark,” Wiger said in pleading that his provision be approved.
“In divided government, it is extremely difficult to come to some sort of agreement at the end,” Gazelka replied, “whether it was trying to be more transparent or fight for things we wanted. There probably are a hundred issues I can think of where somebody was disappointed."
Walz, Hortman, of Brooklyn Park, and Gazelka, of Nisswa, came to a general budget agreement too late for the state budget to pass by its midnight Monday constitutional deadline. In closed-door meetings, they set Friday as the day to finish their work, but some lawmakers were like Wiger in saying they were not bound by what the three top negotiators said.
Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said that a few years ago, he drew up language like Gazelka, Hortman and Walz used in their budget agreement that says legislative leaders who signed the document must oppose amending a bill in special session, but it does not ban amendments.
“I did not feel I had the right to sign away the right to amend a bill,” he said.
After a lengthy discussion of Wiger’s issue, which failed 36-30, the overall environmental bill passed the Senate 61-5.
In a separate debate over a funding measure for courts and public safety, Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Vernon Center, said she does not understand why Walz objected to funding violent crime enforcement teams, which mostly deal with drug crimes in Greater Minnesota.
“I have been here through two governors, and I have been chewed out many times by them,” Rosen said. “But I have no reason why this was taken out.”
Rosen was the author of a bill attacking opioid abuse, which already passed, and said the violent crime team would help reduce the problem.
The measure ultimately passed on a 67-0 vote.
Divided government and closed-door deals
After setting lofty goals early this year, legislative leaders and the governor returned to closed-door negotiations this week to hammer out final catch-all spending bills for various areas of state government.
Gazelka, Hortman and Walz, who came to be known as the "leader court," had to give their seal of approval for the bills to move forward and a day after coming out of their private meetings, they split on how effective their efforts to open up the process were this year.
“Certainly Rep. Hortman and myself tried to find a way to make it more transparent," Gazelka said, "but in the end, you still came back to, how do you close out the deals? And so that ended up being like how it always is."
Hortman said that while parts were done in private, the process was more open this year as the omnibus bills were published days before the special session and they were presented in public hearings.
“This is really a process to try to drive the Legislature toward more transparency and I work very hard to give Republicans as much notice as they could possibly have on the content of all of the bills,” Hortman said.
Members of the minority disagreed and led a push to put off votes on the bills until the final measures could be printed Friday, as the legislative special session pressed on.
“This has been the worst process that I have ever seen in my time here,” House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said. Daudt also raised red flags about the hasty timeline and less oversight potentially leading to errors and omissions in the bills.
Hortman rejected that notion and said the leaders had worked to open up the bills for public view.
“These bills have been out there for two days in most cases and so all the technical corrections, the errors, are being corrected by the revisors before they’re passed,” Hortman said.