Minnesota Senate GOP prepares 'lights on' bill amid impasse

AP image - Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz

The Republican-controlled Minnesota Senate is prepared to pass a measure to prevent a state government shutdown if legislative leaders and Democratic Gov. Tim Walz can't agree on a budget deal.

Posted: May 17, 2019 9:54 AM
Updated: May 17, 2019 2:50 PM

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — With the likelihood of a special session growing, the Republican-controlled Minnesota Senate prepared Friday to pass a measure to prevent a state government shutdown if legislative leaders and Democratic Gov. Tim Walz can't agree on a budget deal before the current budget expires June 30.

Senate Republicans made the chess move Thursday evening as talks bogged down among the governor and leaders of the Senate GOP and House Democratic majorities. Senate Finance Committee Chair Julie Rosen said then that the talks were at "somewhat of an impasse."

Under the state Constitution, the legislative session must adjourn Monday night. The governor has met daily with Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka and House Speaker Melissa Hortman all week, often late into the night, without reaching an overall agreement on taxes, spending and policy initiatives. None of the leaders have said much publicly on what the remaining differences holding up the two-year budget might be.

The lack of news led Democratic Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk to publicly ask Gazelka on the chamber floor for an update Friday.

"I will tell you that the negotiations have been honorable, professional," Gazelka replied. But he declined to give details, saying he had not shared them even with most of his fellow Republicans. "We all want to figure out a way through."

Time is running out for lawmakers to finish drafting and passing the major budget bills by Monday's deadline, even if they work all weekend. That led Senate Republicans to propose a bill to keep state government funded at current levels in case the stalemate persists into June. Senate Democrats criticized that as premature.

The tactic would have several advantages for Republicans. It would keep spending levels at about what the Senate GOP proposed anyway, while shelving Democratic proposals for raising the state's gas tax and preserving a tax on health care providers that expires at year's end. It would also block the rest of the Democrats' ambitious agendas on education, health care and other policy initiatives.

And if Democrats reject the budget extension, Republicans could blame them for any resulting state government shutdown including disruptions in services, closures of state parks and highway rest stops, and furloughs of state workers.

If the Legislature fails to finish its work by Monday night, Walz would need to call them back into special session. He could do so as early as 12:01 a.m. Tuesday, immediately after the deadline. He could call it for next week in hopes of finishing before the Memorial Day holiday weekend. Or he could wait until sometime later in June as the pressure builds.

Special sessions have become almost the norm for completing budgets in Minnesota's recent decades, especially when control of state government is divided.

Three of the four budgets under previous Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton required special sessions. The only one that didn't was in 2013, the last time Democrats controlled both the House and Senate. The bitter budget fight of 2011 led to a 20-day partial government shutdown. Dayton's predecessor, Republican Tim Pawlenty, had to call special sessions to complete the 2003 and 2005 budgets, when Democrats controlled the Senate.

Walz isn't likely to call a special session without agreement on all the details. While it's up to governors to summon lawmakers back to the Capitol, it's up to the House and Senate to decide when to adjourn.

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