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Lawmakers leave St. Paul in state of legislative limbo, special session imminent

Legislative leaders and Gov. Tim Walz on Sunday, May 19, 2019, announced a two-year budget plan with a day left in the regular legislative session. Dana Ferguson / Forum News Service

ST. PAUL — Minnesota lawmakers went home to their districts without finishing a budget and with few details about when they might come back to the Capitol.

The Minnesota Constitution required that lawmakers adjourn Monday, May 20, at midnight. And at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday, they entered a sort of legislative limbo.

Without details about major spending bills or about when the governor might call a special session to wrap up the Legislature's business, lawmakers and Minnesotans were left in the dark.

And as work started ahead of a special session, legislative leaders committed to opening up the process. But lawmakers, lobbyists and others who'd been left out of the budget-writing process said they were skeptical about whether they'd get adequate access to vital information.

The confusion comes after House Speaker Melissa Hortman, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka and Gov. Tim Walz spent days in private negotiations over how much the state should spend on its next two-year budget. They emerged from the "cone of silence" Sunday night with a $48 billion framework, with some specifics about where the funds should go.

A proposal to raise the tax on gasoline was cut while a plan to keep in place a tax on medical providers stayed. And the leaders approved a 2% funding formula spending increase to education each of the next two years as well as a tax cut for middle-class Minnesotans.

The trio left spending targets for specific areas of state government to committee chairs, who then had less than 24 hours to complete their plans and get them ready for a vote. Conference committees then crafted their plans behind closed doors and presented them to the trio, who required their approval to send them to the floor, but said they didn't "micromanage them."

As of Monday night, one of nine spending bills: higher education made it through the House and Senate before the session closed. The others continued meeting through the night and into the day Tuesday to come closer to a final bill. Some of the spending proposals were set to be considered Wednesday in committee hearings.

The higher education proposal contains new money for student grants, it passed the Senate 62-3 and the House 84-49. The House passed the funding measure earlier, with a tuition freeze, but that was changed to a 3 percent cap at Minnesota State schools after negotiations with senators.

As the higher education spending bill and another spending bill on agriculture and rural development came up for a vote, lawmakers who weren't involved in the private talks voiced frustration about not getting a say in what was in them.

"I don't know what's in these bills, nobody does," House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said late Monday night. “This has been the worst, least productive, least transparent session in state history."

That is not how Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, saw the nearly five-month session.

“It is divided government working,” she said of the only state with legislative control split between the parties.

Hortman appeared to mostly blame the Senate for the need for a special session.

“The Senate can be very difficult to work with at times,” the speaker said, adding that senators often did not want to hold budget negotiations in public.

Hortman added that there is talk of holding a two-day session on Thursday and Friday, in part because of difficulty working out a compromise on a 1,000-page House health and human services bill and a Senate measure about half that size.

Unofficial workgroups were set to begin their work in the early hours Tuesday and work through the night.

"They're all working, most of them are very very close," Gazelka, R-Nisswa, said. "Just getting through the process, it always takes longer than we think in divided government."

While much of the budget process had taken place out of the public eye, Walz, Gazelka and Hortman said the working groups would be open to the public and the spending bills would be out for Minnesotans to see before lawmakers took them up for a vote.

Lawmakers must adopt a budget by June 30 or state government could face a partial shutdown July 1 when it runs out of money.

Forum News Service reporter Don Davis contributed to this report.