ST. PAUL — Minnesota lawmakers this week returned from their Easter/Passover recess and kickstarted the six-week run-up to the end of the legislative session.
Leaders in each chamber put up their budget bills specific to education, health, economic development, agriculture, state government and more. And committees advanced the bills that varied significantly between the Republican-led Senate and the DFL-controlled House of Representatives, setting up weeks of tense debates and closed-door negotiations ahead.
Lawmakers on either side of the Capitol split on whether to raise taxes, spend more or cut spending on state government and revise how much the state provides for schools, health care and other programs. While budget bills are supposed to focus on spending plans, they also contained partisan policy priorities from each caucus that promised to spark additional fights in the coming weeks.
The governor's emergency powers also came into play as a possible bargaining chip in reaching a deal on other provisions.
And after a public pressure campaign, a Minnesota Senate committee took up a plan to re-write Minnesota's rape laws to consider whether a person should be legally able to consent to sexual contact if they become intoxicated. A recent state Supreme Court decision gave an alleged rapist a new trial based on current law that says a person can't be considered "mentally incapacitated" unless they're given an intoxicating substance by someone else.
Here's a look at the debates that took place this week as lawmakers moved the bills forward.
Broad divides on tax, spending plans
Committees took up and passed budget bills this week and the differences between the House and the Senate were apparent.
- House Democrats, in lockstep with the governor, proposed tax hikes on top earners while Senate Republicans pushed for tax cuts.
- Both caucuses sought to provide tax relief to businesses that took out federal Paycheck Protection Program loans, but Democrats sought to fully erase state income taxes for small Minnesota businesses while Republicans sought to exempt all taxes on the loans.
- And in an effort to fund road and bridge projects, House Democrats proposed a gradual gas tax increase along with other vehicle taxes and fees that met stark opposition from Republicans.
House Speaker Melissa Hortman, D-Brooklyn Park, and Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, each said their caucus would hold firm in pushing for their spending priorities as the end of the session drew near. And Democrats committed to bringing in new ongoing revenue for education, child care and health care support for workers, while Republicans said they would block new taxes and push to reduce state spending and prioritize policies they say will help fuel a post-COVID-19 economic recovery.
"I think that's a bad idea," Gazelka said of the proposed tax hikes during a video recording posted Monday, "that's the last thing we need right now."
Gazelka urged lawmakers to pull down federal COVID-19 relief funds, set to bring $2.6 billion to Minnesota and to use a forecast $1.6 billion state general fund surplus. Hortman, meanwhile, said the state shouldn't use those one-time funds for ongoing expenses like boosting spending for school or daycare. And she, along with House Democrats, proposed the creation of a new income tax tier with a rate of 11.15% for couples that make more than $1 million or individuals that make more than $500,000.
Democrats also urged increases in funding for various areas of government as the state comes out of the pandemic, not cuts.
“We’ve been very clear that we don’t think that cuts are appropriate, nevertheless, the Minnesota Senate Republicans have substantial cuts all across state government at a time when we are unquestionably relying on our state employees more than ever,” Hortman told reporters on Monday. “This is not a time to be cutting state government.”
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Key policy priorities for each caucus also found their way into the large budget bills, teeing up more debates down the road.
- Republicans prioritized reforms to election law like requiring photo identification to vote and provisional ballots for same-day voting. Meanwhile, Democrats sought to expand the right to vote to felons who've completed their prison sentence, create an automatic voter registration program and create a penalty for voter intimidation and interference.
- Senate Republicans included a provision in their education bill that would bar transgender girls from competing in girls' and womens' sports.
- In an agriculture and natural resources bill, Republicans aimed to yank the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency's ability to enact its Clean Car emissions standards without legislative approval.
- House Democrats, meanwhile, pushed to set in state law requirements that workers be allowed to accrue paid sick and safe time as well as paid family leave through their work.
- Democrats also advanced criminal justice legislation containing police accountability rules that Republicans deemed "anti-law enforcement."
Walz's emergency powers on the table
Democrats this week signaled they'd be open to including in larger budget negotiations policies that limit the governor's ability to act during a pandemic. But they said they would aim to keep intact — at a minimum — Gov. Tim Walz's executive authority to let the state's COVID-19 testing and vaccination efforts continue.
Senate Republicans peppered several of their budget proposals with plans to limit Walz's executive powers under Minnesota's peacetime emergency, allow more sectors of the economy to reopen at full capacity and require legislative sign-off for additional extensions of the emergency. For months, they've challenged Walz's powers and unsuccessfully pushed to end them.
“If Republicans are willing to be responsible and actually be negotiating and working with us in good faith in a timely manner, we want to work with them,” House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, D-Golden Valley, told reporters on Monday. “But we are not going to hand over responsibility for the health and safety of Minnesotans and our economy to people who just want to score political points.”
Walz on Wednesday told reporters that he wasn't considering any additional restrictions related to COVID-19 mitigation efforts but didn't offer a trajectory to fully reopening the state as more Minnesotans get vaccinated against the illness. The Executive Council is set to meet next week, a week after the latest extension of Minnesota's peacetime emergency, signaling another 30-day continuation is likely on the horizon.
Supreme Court decision, uproar force action on rape laws
A proposal to rewrite Minnesota's rape laws picked up more bipartisan and bicameral support this week following intense pressure to close gaps in the statute that sexual assault survivors said prevented them from taking their cases to court or winning cases over the person who'd assaulted them.
The Minnesota Supreme Court late last month ruled that current laws don't include as "mentally incapacitated" those who become intoxicated on their own, which resulted in a new trial for a man who offered to drive home an intoxicated woman from a Dinkytown bar in 2017 before taking her to his home and sexually assaulting her.
Justices in their opinion said the Legislature was in a better position to review the statute and make changes to some of the provisions that hadn't seen rewrites in decades. The decision and advice from the court put more pressure on members of the Minnesota Senate to prioritize the proposals. And a Senate panel this week passed a plan to expand existing law to state that a person is to be considered incapacitated if "under the influence of an intoxicating substance to a degree that renders them incapable of consenting."
"Now that the Supreme Court has made its decision, it's our turn to act," Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, said Wednesday. "This discussion is ripe for attention."
The Minnesota House of Representatives has already advanced similar legislation as well as additional rape law revisions including dropping outdated statutes that make illegal under law adultery and sodomy. The broader plan would also expand protections for children and make sexual extortion a crime.