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At session midpoint, Minnesota lawmakers aim for first deals

By Brian Bakst, Minnesota Public Radio News

A legislative session that began in January and must end in May reaches its halfway point this week, with a sense that some big decisions can’t wait on the usual endgame pileup.

Two measures will get outsized attention and draw closer to conclusion: A funding plan tied to public safety around the Derek Chauvin murder trial and a tax proposal meant to dovetail with relief coming out of Washington.

By the end of this week, bills have to have cleared at least one committee or they are prone to be left behind for the year. They could resurface as amendments to bigger bills or get wedged into final negotiations. But the funneling has begun and committees will be in for some late nights.

Top lawmakers have been hung up for weeks over the plan to pay for public safety efforts around major incidents or events, such as the trial of former Minneapolis police officers charged in George Floyd’s death.

The early plan was to get money lined up early to coincide with planning for potential unrest that occurs outside of the many peaceful protests in the works.

Gov. Tim Walz initially said $35 million should go into what he branded the SAFE Account and he asked that it be approved by early February. It would reimburse local departments from other communities that send in officers or equipment.

The Senate balked and passed a bill that would effectively put Minneapolis on the hook through rerouted state aid.

The House couldn’t even get a bill passed because some Democrats were uncomfortable with an unchecked law enforcement ramp-up, and Republicans didn’t like other conditions placed on the aid.

The Senate could vote as soon as Monday on a scaled-back plan. One recent version capped the funding at $15 million, put a panel of law enforcement leaders in charge of approving aid requests and made clear the account would expire in a couple of years.

It’s unclear if that’s the version that will come up for a vote because most of the recent discussions between legislative leaders have happened privately.

There’s a strong appetite to put this debate to rest. And Monday’s scheduled start of the Chauvin trial adds to the pressure.

Walz said he’s inclined to sign whatever the House and Senate can agree on and pass.

“Whether it will be what we saw unfold in May and June or what this trial brings. There is no single department that can handle this alone,” Walz said.

The governor, GOP Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka and DFL House Speaker Melissa Hortman all spoke to a Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association virtual conference late last week and this topic was top of mind.

“We’ll pay for it after the fact if we have to. We’re committed,” Gazelka said. “We know the resources just flat out need to be there.”

Hortman said the goal is to balance security needs with an understanding that some community members don’t feel respected by law enforcement.

“Public safety in Minnesota means public safety for everyone,” she said. “We want an environment where the community feels like they have a trusting, reciprocal relationship with the police and the police feel the community has their back.”

But Hortman said she’s confident something will pass.

“I’m confident that having lived through what we all lived through here in the state of Minnesota the last four days in May last year, that we are bound and determined that we prepare so that nothing like that ever happens in our state again,” she said.

Agreement seems much further away over a tax plan to account for COVID-19 relief that went to businesses and idled workers.

It has a lot to do with the cost.

Many businesses that received the federal Payroll Protection Program loans had them forgiven. The feds aren’t taxing that money. But the state will if the law isn’t changed. An across-the-board fix would cost $440 million. The Legislature could decide to tailor the relief in some fashion.

That bill in the Senate also now includes a write-off for some income taxes tied to pandemic unemployment benefits. The price tag on that isn’t as high but could be a couple hundred million dollars if all of the benefits become tax-free. It’s another area where lawmakers might set some limits.

A third wrinkle is that many lawmakers want to fast-track summer school funding as part of a quick-turn deal.

The Senate bill could get a vote this week. But Hortman said it’s unlikely to get wrapped up in the House in the near term.

Meanwhile, Walz is still going over revisions to his budget to account for better economic numbers that turned a $1.3 billion projected deficit into a $1.6 billion anticipated surplus.

Aides say his latest recommendations are likely to come out near the end of next week.