More than four months into the session, legislators in the Senate and House of Representatives closed out their official work period without passing a single budget bill. And absent specifics, the “numbers-only” agreement left room for blowups as legislators pick up their unfinished business in working groups over the next few weeks.
Legislative leaders and the governor crafted the global agreement in secret and they credited themselves with striking a deal that could pick up support in the Statehouse where Republicans narrowly control the Senate and Democrats hold a narrow majority in the House.
But as the deal hit the light of day, lawmakers who weren’t in the room with the trio of leaders voiced concerns and threatened to dig in to get what they wanted. If they can’t reach a deal by June 30, the state government could shut down.
Also in the Legislature’s final hours, both chambers approved a provision expanding the state’s medical marijuana program and Gov. Tim Walz said he’d likely sign the bill into law.
With lawmakers heading into extra innings, here’s a look at what happened at the Capitol this week and what lies ahead.
Work is just beginning after budget target deal
Minnesota House Speaker Melissa Hortman, D-Brooklyn Park, and House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, D-Golden Valley, spoke with reporters at the Minnesota Capitol on Monday, May 17, 2021. (Dana Ferguson / Forum News Service)
House Speaker Melissa Hortman, D-Brooklyn Park, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, and Walz on Monday emerged from closed-door negotiations to announce they’d struck a deal on budget targets, just hours before the clock was set to run out on the 2021 legislative session.
The $52 billion global agreement lays out how much the state is set to spend on schools, roads and bridge repairs, public safety and other state government functions but it doesn’t go into specifics. And the tentative deal didn’t address policy changes, so hot-button issues like policing law changes, ending the governor’s emergency powers and blocking a vehicle emissions policy modeled after California’s would all have to be debated and decided when legislators return.
“The work, I would say, is not done. It just began,” Gazelka told reporters. “Now we have clear guidance about where to go.”
Minnesota Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, on Thursday, May 13, 2021, spoke to reporters at the Capitol about end-of-session negotiations. (Dana Ferguson / Forum News Service)
Though the state’s peacetime emergency remains a subject of partisan disagreement, Walz said he expected to again extend the declaration mid-June, and that would trigger a special session for lawmakers to weigh in and vote to end the emergency and the governor’s executive powers. And while they’re in St. Paul, they could pass a budget, too.
But that’s only if enough legislators in either chamber sign off on the roughly 13 budget bills and additional policy proposals. Gazelka and Hortman have said they’re confident they have the backing to pass a budget before the June 30 deadline, but members of each of their caucuses have drawn hard lines that could stymie those efforts.
GOP lawmakers threatened to stall out the state’s environmental budget if the Walz administration’s “Clean Cars” rules weren’t delayed or blocked altogether. That could mean state parks could close in early July if lawmakers can’t negotiate a compromise.
Earlier in the year, members of the People of Color and Indigenous Caucus said they would block a state budget if meaningful changes weren’t made to address accountability and transparency in policing. A year after the murder of George Floyd and just months after the police killing of Daunte Wright, disagreements remained over the changes they put forward.
More from the Capitol: What got done — and what didn’t — during Minnesota’s 2021 legislative session
While legislative leaders said they were coalescing around some of the proposed changes, Gazelka said he would oppose measures deemed “anti-police” and said he objected to plans to create citizen oversight boards or to study officers’ qualified immunity.
Working groups had yet to meet this week, but leaders set deadlines for budget bills to be hammered out in the next two weeks.
Medical marijuana program expansion squeaks through
Both chambers on Monday also approved as part of a larger health and human services bill a plan to allow Minnesotans in the state’s medical cannabis program to smoke dried raw marijuana as part of their treatment. The plan had previously limited allowable cannabis offerings to pills, oils and liquids, making the program one of the most restrictive in the country and driving up the price of the derivatives.
“By allowing flower, which is a much cheaper product to produce, the costs will come down maybe to a third of what they are now,” House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, D-Golden Valley, said, “so it will be substantially cheaper for patients to access medical cannabis as a result.”
The measure’s Senate sponsor Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, assured members in that chamber that the proposal wasn’t intended to be a step toward legalizing marijuana for recreational use, but instead to “make this available to people who have medical need and cannot afford it.”
Opponents, meanwhile said the plan would be a de facto shift toward legalization.
“I have to hand it to the people that wanted to legalize marijuana, you’ve done it. And congratulations to you, I suppose,” Rep. Tim Miller, R-Prinsburg, said. “If you look at what qualifies for medical marijuana, it’s just about everything under the sun and the way that the system is set up, if you don’t qualify now, just give it a matter of time.”
Walz this week said he would likely sign the bill into law. The House of Representatives also passed a separate proposal to legalize marijuana for recreational use by adults 21 and older, but the Senate didn’t take up the plan.