ST. PAUL — Partisan gridlock at the Capitol torpedoed a set of legislative priorities late Sunday night as Minnesota lawmakers rammed up against the end of the 2020 legislative session.
After hours of closed door virtual negotiations between leaders and the governor, plans to put more than a billion dollars toward public construction projects, decisions on how to allocate $1.87 billion in federal COVID-19 response funds and approvals for state worker contracts fell by the wayside.
It wasn’t the first time lawmakers made a final scramble to reach agreements as the clock ticked down, but it marked a first in state history as the Legislature attempted to adapt to the COVID-19 pandemic. Private negotiations shifted to teleconferences and Zoom calls and a typically crowded Capitol building sat largely empty as lobbyists, advocates and some lawmakers were forced to look on from home.
And disagreements over the state's COVID-19 pandemic response fueled opposition to unrelated policies, in some cases forcing their demise late Sunday.
While the Minnesota Legislature had few constitutional requirements this session as the state’s two year budget was approved last year, they failed to approve a borrowing bill to fund projects around the state known as a bonding bill in an even year, when they would typically pass one. And legal questions surrounded state employee contracts that were approved in the House and altered in the Senate.
As the legislative session fizzled to a close, leaders said they would pick up unfinished business ahead of an expected June 12 special session. And they said they expected a bonding bill and other priorities would be approved then.
"In terms of it being a COVID session, it was a bipartisan success. All of the leaders and all of the caucuses and the governor worked very well together and did what Minnesota needed in response to the pandemic," House Speaker Melissa Hortman, D-Brooklyn Park, told reporters. "Now we have our additional work that we fell a little behind on because we were dealing with this pandemic but we will have an opportunity to come back and finish it."
A lackluster finish
In the House, legislators worked right up until time ran out, the clerk forced to go through the tedious process of voice votes for every roll call taken as legislators worked remotely, unable to access the in house voting machine. Breaking with tradition, no closing speeches were made: At 12:03 a.m. Monday, House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, D-Golden Valley, motioned to adjourn sine die, and with a quick voice vote of affirmation, a masked Hortman banged the gavel, unceremoniously adjourning the House from the 2020 session with no notable compromises made in the final day.
Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent, D-Woodbury, lamented the stalled compromises in a late-night statement following adjournment, saying, "Unfortunately, political posturing and stalling from our Republican colleagues stood in the way of legislation that is at the core of caring for Minnesotans."
The Senate on Sunday failed to advance a $998 million bonding proposal, which leaders in that chamber viewed as a compromise. A day prior, Republicans in the Minnesota House voted down a $2 billion plan there, saying the state couldn't afford it given a projected $2.4 billion budget deficit.
“This is the last train leaving the station for bonding,” Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said in a news release. “It’s disappointing that we couldn’t come together tonight on this responsible, important bill. All four leaders and all four caucuses — including Senate Democrats — and the governor, have to work together for Minnesota.”
The minorities in each chamber play a key role in bonding bill debates as their votes are needed to help reach a three-fifths majority. But the Legislature couldn't come up with a borrowing plan Sunday that satisfied Republicans and Democrats in each chamber.
House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-East Gull Lake, said his caucus planned to support a bonding bill in special session and felt a plan between $1.1 and $1.35 billion would be realistic. Daudt said he was left out of negotiations until late in the game, which made him reluctant to advance a bonding bill over the weekend.
"We really needed to be talking a little more seriously yesterday or the day before to get there," Daudt said.
Hortman rejected Daudt's characterization as inaccurate, saying the minority had been involved in discussions and didn't respond to efforts to craft a bill.
Labor unions were quick to voice frustration about the bonding bill getting pushed off again.
"It is time for the House and Senate Republicans to put politics aside, and for our state leaders to come together and do what’s best for Minnesota in this COVID-19 economic crisis: pass a $2 billion infrastructure bill that will stimulate the economy and keep Minnesotans working," Joel Smith, President and Business Manager of Laborers International Union of North America Minnesota and North Dakota, said.
In the nearly empty Capitol, typical end of session demonstrations or lobbying efforts were largely absent. Interest groups aimed to put in their final appeals via social media and leaders over the phone and Zoom attempted to strike a final deal.
“The problem with COVID and doing many things by Zoom is some of the intensity of the people around us that bring the pressure to help us get to the end," Gazelka said Sunday afternoon. "None of that’s here so people aren’t out in the hallways, the different parts of the end of session that just isn’t there it causes some people to not feel the pressure."
COVID-19 response chafes GOP lawmakers
In the Minnesota House, GOP lawmakers dug in on their disagreements with Walz's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and spent more than an hour pushing against the Department of Education's guidance encouraging online graduation ceremonies.
They brought forth an amendment to a broader education bill that would have allowed high schools to hold graduation ceremonies this spring, despite the Walz administration's orders to the contrary in light of the pandemic.
Legislators accused Walz of "robbing" high schoolers of their milestones, with Rep. Mary Franson, R-Alexandria, encouraging Minnesotans to hold "underground" graduation celebrations anyway.
The discussion spiraled into legislators reminiscing about their own high school coming of age: Rep. Eric Lucero, R-Dayton remembered eating dinner in his tuxedo at Old Country Buffet before going to prom, and Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, said he lost his senior year oration contest after making a speech in support of the Vietnam War, thanks to "those darn liberal judges."
Rep. Cheryl Youakim, D-Hopkins, the primary author of the omnibus bill, said the missed graduation ceremonies are sad for seniors, but "this pandemic has robbed us of many things we love." The amendment was defeated, but the omnibus was ultimately the final bill passed of the night.
Daudt earlier this week said he planned to block a bonding bill in that chamber unless Walz ended a peacetime emergency, which granted him broader authority. Walz on Wednesday extended his authority an additional 30 days.
Daudt got the final word in of the night, issuing a 12:42 a.m. statement that pushing major legislation like the bonding bill off until June 12's special session "will give us further clarity on our state's financial situation, time to evaluate our response to the pandemic, and time to make better decisions."