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Virus forces changes as Minnesota Legislature opens Tuesday

MINNEAPOLIS — When the Minnesota Legislature convenes for its 2021 regular session Tuesday, it won’t look like a normal session. The House will meet entirely via Zoom until further notice because of the pandemic. The Senate will try a hybrid approach. And the Capitol will remain surrounded by riot fencing.

That’s going to make it a challenge for lawmakers to interact with each other, their constituents and the advocates for a myriad of causes who normally would rally under the Capitol rotunda or fan out through the halls and hearing rooms. With the Capitol complex mostly closed to the public, phone calls, emails and online meetings will replace most of the traditional face-to-face work. And that’s going to make it harder for citizens and even well-connected lobbyists to be heard.

“The reality is, not being in person means we’re going to be less efficient than we normally are,” said Democratic Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent, of Woodbury.

But some things won’t change. Job No. 1, as always in odd-numbered years, is to craft a new two-year state budget. The election didn’t change the basic partisan divide. Republicans still control the Senate while Democrats still control the House, albeit with smaller majorities. And Democratic Gov. Tim Walz still needs to work with both sides to get much done.

Legislative leaders have agreed in recent public forums that they’re not likely to consider as many bills as usual because of the difficulties. Contentious proposals for gun control and legalizing recreational marijuana probably will stall out once again. But here’s a look at some major issues definitely in play:

Budget

Much to everybody’s surprise, the state is projecting a $641 million surplus in the current budget that runs through June 30, and just a $1.3 billion shortfall for the next two-year budget. The picture will become clearer with an updated forecast in February. But the parties already have different ideas about how to fill the gap in a general fund budget that will probably come in roughly around $50 billion.

Democratic House Speaker Melissa Hortman, of Brooklyn Park, said she expects the Senate GOP majority to propose an “all-cuts approach,” while Democrats will advocate a “revenue-heavy approach” targeting people who’ve done well amid the pandemic and corporations that shield profits offshore.

“We can all see where this ends,” Hortman said. “There’s a pragmatic solution in the middle.”

But Republican House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, of Crown, said federal aid and the economic rebound could avert spending cuts.

“Raising taxes is absolutely the wrong move during economic recovery,” he said.

COVID-19

The pandemic has been a major source of friction between the governor and Republicans. Walz has relied heavily on executive orders, rather than legislation. GOP lawmakers will try to gain a bigger voice in how the state prioritizes public health versus opening businesses and schools.

Several lawmakers have contracted COVID-19 or tested positive for the coronavirus, including Republican Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, of East Gull Lake, who has recovered, and GOP Sen. Jerry Relph, of St. Cloud, who died last month. An unknown number of staffers also have been infected. Senate Republicans have been under Democratic fire for a lack of transparency over cases in their ranks despite their push for a return to in-person work.

Redistricting

Minnesota must redraw its legislative and congressional district maps based on what the 2020 census shows about population shifts, with the state on the brink of losing a congressional seat. But State Demographer Susan Brower said Minnesota probably won’t get its data until after the regular session ends in mid-May. Lawmakers will hold initial hearings but may have to defer the nitty-gritty mapmaking. The deadline isn’t until February 2022. Given the partisan divide — and the stakes for who controls the Legislature — history suggests that the task again will fall to the courts.

The challenge will become bigger if Minnesota loses one of its eight U.S. House seats due to the census. “It’s going to be very close,” Brower said. “There is too much that remains to be settled to be able to make a good forecast.”

Education

Walz is allowing elementary schools to return to in-person learning in January, but Republicans want a much faster return to normal. And education funding is likely to be another point of contention, given the increased strains on schools from the pandemic and inflationary pressures.

Equity

The trial of four ex-Minneapolis police officers charged in George Floyd’s death is set to begin March 8, a midsession reminder of Minnesota’s enduring racial divides. Lawmakers needed a special session last year to compromise on policing changes that Democrats said were just a starting point. Reducing school achievement gaps will be another challenge.

“We’re still at the very beginning of addressing the fact that there are great disparities in Minnesota, whether it’s education, employment, housing, and that we need to do a better job,” Hortman said.