Minnesota Legislature prepares to finish off work on budget

Published 9:54 am Wednesday, June 30, 2021

MINNEAPOLIS — The Minnesota Legislature was set to reconvene Wednesday to finish its remaining work on a $52 billion, two-year budget after working into the early hours to pass a bill that ends Gov. Tim Walz’s emergency powers effective Thursday.

The emergency powers language was added early Wednesday to a state government and elections budget bill shortly after the Democratic governor said he was ending the state’s peacetime state of emergency himself. Walz had used his special powers for over 15 months to manage the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which was a long-running sore point for Republican lawmakers who complained that he had shut the Legislature out of important spending and policy decisions.

The vote on the final bill was 70-63 in the Democratic-controlled House and 54-12 in the GOP-led Senate. Walz was expected to sign it later Wednesday, along with a public safety budget containing police accountability measures that passed early Wednesday on the heels of last Friday’s sentencing of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin to 22 1/2 years in prison for murder in the death of George Floyd.

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The only remaining budget bills needing passage before the current budget expires Wednesday night were an education funding bill that needed Senate approval and a tax bill that needed a vote in both chambers. Leaders have already agreed on the major components of both bills. It was still unclear Wednesday morning whether lawmakers would also consider a public works borrowing package known as a bonding bill, which would require bipartisan 60% supermajorities in both chambers but is not required to finish the budget.

Walz announced last week that he was going to end the emergency on Aug. 1, but said in a statement late Tuesday that he had moved up the date after reaching a deal with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to protect emergency food aid payments to needy Minnesotans under the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program.

“And this allowed the Legislature to go ahead and end this. They take over responsibility now on some of these things. We’ll still be giving vaccines, we’ll still need to test, but those will be run in the usual manner,” Walz said in an interview Wednesday morning on Minnesota Public Radio.

Walz told MPR that his administration worked extensively with the USDA, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and the White House to preserve the food aid benefits, which had been contingent on the emergency declaration.

The governor said language added to the state government bill in the House will give him sufficient power to manage the state’s vaccination program and emergency unemployment benefits, while winding down other remaining elements of the state’s pandemic response. The Legislature met another condition earlier this week when it approved an “off ramp” for the governor’s eviction moratorium, which he had imposed in the early days of the pandemic.

The governor’s office said Minnesota has received over $505 million in increased benefits that were predicated on his emergency declaration. The deal with the federal government ensures that Minnesota will continue to receive $45 million in SNAP benefits for more than 575,000 Minnesotans, it said.

Walz was required by law to call monthly special sessions when the Legislature was adjourned as a condition for extending the emergency. House Democrats repeatedly blocked GOP attempts to rescind the governor’s powers. The June special session also gave lawmakers the opportunity to finish work on the state budget, which they were unable to pass before time ran out on the regular session in May.

Walz told MPR that the final budget “looks an awful lot” like the original budget he put out in January and later revised as the state’s projected budget surplus grew. He said a bonding bill would be “icing on the cake” but could also be passed in next year’s regular session. He also said he may need to call another special session this fall to approve a $250 million package using federal aid to provide bonuses for essential workers affected by the pandemic.

Republican leaders claimed credit for forcing the governor’s hand on special powers.

“The governor has held onto these powers far too long and used them far too broadly,” Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, of East Gull Lake, said in a statement. “We’ve been clear that we were going to end these powers, so I’m not surprised Walz tried to outmaneuver us — but he does not get to say he let them go. The emergency is over because the Senate and the House said so.”