ST. PAUL — The Minnesota Legislature on Tuesday is set to kick off the 2020 legislative session with a $1.3 billion budget surplus, potential multi-million-dollar bonding bill and a slate of policy proposals up for consideration.
Leaders in the divided Legislature have come to pre-session talks with different plans for the state and ideas for what lawmakers should prioritize in the next several months. And they have said they'll offer voters distinct menus of what voters might be able to expect in 2021 if they give either party control over both chambers of the Legislature.
Proposals to cut taxes, restrict firearms, boost funding for child care, require a photo identification to vote, incentivize school choice and require employers to grant employees paid sick and safe time will all be on the table. But what will be enacted into law will come into focus over the next several months.
As the lawmakers prepare to return to St. Paul, here are some of the biggest questions heading into the session.
Where will the $1.3 billion surplus go?
It depends on who you ask. Legislative leaders and Walz split on how they'd like to see the projected surplus spent.
House Democrats have proposed putting the one-time dollars toward early childhood care and education. In the face of the state's childcare shortage, they said it was crucial that the state make a "downpayment" on early childhood outcomes that could have lifelong impacts for three- and four-year-olds.
Senate Republicans, meanwhile, said the money should be used to offset the cost of exempting social security income for seniors. They said the exemption could help keep seniors in the state longer and, in turn, encourage older Minnesotans to remain in the workforce longer. With a tight labor market, the move could help keep the economy moving, they said.
Gov. Tim Walz said he hopes the funds can help replenish the state's rainy day fund, as an economic downturn could be on the horizon.
“I think it would behoove us to think toward the future, that there’s going to be a natural downturn, no matter who is president, no matter policies are put in place,” the Democratic-Farmer-Labor governor said.
How many projects get approved in the bonding bill? And what's the price tag?
One of the biggest questions for lawmakers in a bonding year is what will end up in the potentially multi-million-dollar list of public projects and how much the state will pay for it.
House Democrats and the governor have pitched hefty bonding proposals that take into account current low-interest rates that would allow the state to borrow for the public works projects and a relatively low cost.
“We should go as big as we responsibly can under the debt guidelines,” House Speaker Melissa Hortman, D-Brooklyn Park, said.
For Democrats that number will likely run around $3.5 billion. Walz has put forth a $2 billion plan and Senate Republicans have said they'd prefer to see a package that prices out between $755 million and $1 billion so as to avoid the expense of debt service for the bonds.
"The last two bonding bills were between that and $1 billion," Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, told the Bemidji Pioneer last month. "We're suggesting the bonding bill should be in that range."
The bonding bill requires a higher threshold of support in each chamber than policy bills, a three-fifths supermajority, and that means Democrats would have to pick up Republican support to pass it.
Will the leaders play nice?
With the government split and the election on the horizon, tensions could arise in the Capitol. But legislative leaders said they were confident they could disagree without being disagreeable.
“Despite our very different ideologies, we can get some policy wins this session and still run vigorous campaigns against each other, making sure Minnesota knows what each of us is for,” Hortman said.
Walz, Gazelka and Hortman have all emphasized their ability to work together and to find compromise despite their different policy visions. And the governor has made a point of highlighting that he didn't have to veto a single bill last year. Whether that record remains clean in 2020 will be up to the Legislature and what it tees up for the first-term governor.
As a sign of goodwill toward the legislative leaders on Wednesday, Walz offered them each a rice crispy or cookie bar.
"It's the start of a friendship," he said. "So bars for everybody."
Will the addition of a new leader change the game in St. Paul?
The Minnesota Senate this year will have a new face representing the minority in that chamber. Sen. Susan Kent, D-Woodbury, last week beat out former Minority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, in a closed contest for the head of the DFL caucus.
Bakk had led the Senate Democrats for a decade, and following the leadership shakeup, local leaders in Greater Minnesota expressed concern for what the change could mean for their communities. And Republicans, aiming to pick up additional legislative seats later this year, launched a public campaign saying they'd advocate for the Iron Range and rural Minnesota.
Gazelka in a forum with TPT Almanac said he viewed the leadership change as advantageous for Republicans, but not for Minnesota.
"The people up there (on the Iron Range), I think they are concerned seeing their senator removed from power, but that is the nature of this place," Gazelka said at a forum later Wednesday.
Kent, in her first brush with the Capitol press corps since taking the job, said she'd take on issues that affect all Minnesotans. And on Friday, she announced two Greater Minnesota lawmakers, Sens. Nick Frentz, of North Mankato, and Erik Simonson, of Duluth, would become assistant caucus leaders.
"What we want to make sure is that every voice has a place at the table and everyone is heard," Kent told reporters, "that all of these issues get fair discussions and hearings and then it's really about focusing on basic priorities that we have as Minnesotans."
Will there be any compromise?
Maybe. Legislative leaders and the governor in the days ahead of the session looked fondly back at the budget deal they were able to strike together last year and said similar agreements could come in 2020.
Among them, an agreement on an emergency insulin program, clean energy first plan and bonding proposal rose to the top of their legislative priority lists. And while they came to the starting line with different plans, the leaders said they'd work together to get closer to an agreement.
“Let’s just focus on the things we can together get done,” Gazelka said. “There are some things that we’re willing to do.”
Gazelka, in talking about a pair of gun control bills put forth by Democrats, said any proposals that skewed to the far-left or far-right wouldn't meet that standard. And he encouraged DFL leaders to "get to 70%" on issues like emergency insulin or sexual harassment legislation rather than taking an all or nothing approach.
Hortman said Democrats have compromised on the emergency insulin proposal but want drug manufacturers to foot the bill. And while she was hopeful the authors of a proposal to move the state's electric utilities away from fossil fuel sources could find a middle-ground this session, Hortman said the House and Senate were set to start the session with very different proposals.