In chaotic close, Minnesota lawmakers fail to pass projects bill, equal rights amendment

Published 5:26 pm Sunday, May 19, 2024

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By Dana Ferguson and Clay Masters, Minnesota Public Radio News

The Minnesota Legislature stumbled toward a tumultuous end late Sunday night in a chorus of shouting and snap votes in a final day sure to damage the ability of the parties to work in concert in the future.

Lawmakers wrapped up their last day of voting without approving a substantial borrowing plan to pay for construction projects or one to put an equal rights amendment before voters. The House will reconvene Monday for retirement speeches and other formalities before breaking for the year.

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In an unprecedented display of discord, shouting rang through both chambers for much of the last hour — “point of order!” “follow the rules!” “you are out of line!” “this is not Russia!” ”absolutely shameful!” — with Democrats trying to speed up votes over the vociferous objections of Republicans. The presiding officers were shouted down but ignored the calls to stop the votes.

“Tensions are always high,” said Senate President Bobby Joe Champion after enduring 30 minutes of interrupted yelling about his refusal to recognize Republican motions.

Democrats, who have full Capitol control, rolled a slate of spending-related bills into one package and moved to pass it within minutes and with no debate.

“The way governance works in Minnesota has been degraded and will never be the same,” said House Minority Leader Lisa Demuth, R-Cold Spring said with 10 minutes to go as a cash plan for construction projects emerged and was put up to a vote. It wasn’t accessible online before the vote.

The bill failed to get through the Senate in time, meaning nothing will result this year on the building front unless a special session gets called.

Among the other items decided in a final-day shakeout:

  • A plan to set statewide standards on pay and job protections for ride-share drivers advanced to the governor.
  • Legislation to authorize sports betting got set aside yet again.
  • A framework to speedup issuance of cultivation licenses for retail cannabis growers got across the finish line.

Intense partisan disagreements erupted over the weekend and ultimately stalled the public infrastructure projects plan that requires a higher vote threshold to pass — and in this case Republican help — because it involves issuing debt. Typically, that’s the one expectation of an even-year legislative session.

Debates over budget bills stretched right up to the Legislature’s midnight deadline. Ultimately, legislative leaders said they had to decide which to pass and which to ditch to finish their business on time.

For the entire legislative session, Republican lawmakers said they’d been shut out of critical negotiations. Their frustrations grew more acute last month after DFL Sen. Nicole Mitchell, DFL-Woodbury, was arrested and charged with burglary for an incident at her stepmother’s home.

Republicans argued that Mitchell shouldn’t be allowed to cast deciding votes in the Senate, where Democrats hold a one-vote advantage. They repeatedly brought motions aimed at limiting Mitchell’s authority in the chamber or expelling her.

“We want to hold people up to the highest standard. You didn’t see that happen,” said Senate Minority Leader Mark Johnson, R-East Grand Forks. “That started to deteriorate the relationships quite a bit within the Senate. They just said, ‘Yep, you know, this was wrong.’ We just said, ‘This is wrong, and we’ll work bipartisanly.’ We would have had a great end of session.”

Legislative leaders pointed fingers at one another on Monday morning and cast blame for the frantic close to the session.

“I had to do what I had to do to get the bills across the finish line,” said House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park. “What I’m disappointed in and I think all of us are, is that Republicans engaged in the conduct that they did, it’s deeply respectful to the institution.”

For her part, Demuth said DFL leadership was at fault.

“We were completely steamrolled by the Democrat majority,” Demuth said. “Our voices were not heard, shutting out the voices of Minnesota.”

Almost an hour after adjournment, Senate Majority Leader Erin Murphy said it was an unfortunate ending. “My ears are still ringing,” she said.

But she said she expects it to become a memory soon enough.

“The spectacle will fade, the work will remain,” she said.

It foreshadows campaign trail messages that will go live soon. The campaign filing period begins Tuesday. Control of the Minnesota House will be on the ballot — and the Senate might be on the line as well if one or more members resign for health, political or legal reasons.

Going into the legislative session, DFL leaders said their list of priorities was relatively short. It was meant to be a year focused on touching up the raft of changes they made last year.

After they took control of all three levers of power in 2023, Democrats moved dozens of wishlist items like guaranteeing legal access to abortion, boosting school funding, offering free meals for students and legalizing cannabis. They said they wanted to give state agencies time and resources to absorb the changes.

Early on, they approved fixes to the laws governing school resources officers and a tax bill that spurred confusion.

There was no threat of a state government shutdown if budget touch-up bills or a construction projects bill fell by the wayside. The Legislature set a two-year budget last year.

DFL leaders also touted their proposal to set statewide rideshare driver minimum wages and avert Uber and Lyft from leaving the state. The companies said they would leave the metro area this summer if a Minneapolis ordinance setting higher rates took effect.

Here are some of the biggest questions before the Legislature and a look at how they shook out.

Rideshare pay and protections

Both the Minnesota House and Senate approved the proposal Sunday to override a Minneapolis city ordinance and set a minimum wage for drivers at $1.28 per mile and 31 cents per minute.  Drivers will also get new methods for appealing when companies seek to deactivate them over alleged conduct violations.

Uber and Lyft said they would probably raise rider prices but would no longer threaten to abandon the market on July 1, as they said they’d do if the Minneapolis plan took hold.

Public construction projects

Lawmakers failed to reach an agreement on a public construction project bill ahead of their deadline Sunday. The bill requires bipartisan backing to let the state take on debt to fund projects. A cash-only plan that could have passed with a simple majority emerged in the final minutes before midnight. It won House approval but didn’t get through the Senate in time.

Typically even years are bonding years at the Capitol. Lawmakers fielded more than $7 billion in requests for state and local projects around the state.

There are some building projects in that sprawling budget bill, including $22.5 million to start acquiring land and designing a new State Patrol headquarters.

Rural emergency medical services funding

Both chambers approved a measure over the weekend that would boost emergency medical services in rural parts of the state by $24 million.

The proposal would also set up sprint medic pilot projects in Otter Tail and St. Louis counties and replace the Emergency Medical Services Regulatory Board with the Office of Emergency Medical Services. Service providers have said they need $120 million to be made whole. Lawmakers said the funding was just a start and they would approve more in 2025. The governor has said he would sign it into law.

Equal rights amendment

The House voted early Sunday to pass the bill that would add a constitutional amendment barring discrimination based on someone’s race, class, color, disability, sex, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity or “decisions about all matters relating to one’s own pregnancy or decision whether to become or remain pregnant.” The Minnesota Senate, meanwhile, didn’t pick it up in time for a vote ahead of its midnight deadline.

The proposal would have sent the question to voters in 2026.

DFL lawmakers said they will try again next year if Democrats return in the majority to the House.

Gun laws

The only gun changes to get through deal with illegal purchases of guns for people not authorized to possess them, known as straw purchasers. Those offenses would carry stiffer penalties than current law.

The Legislature also moved to bar trigger devices that allow ammunition to fire multiple times with one pull.

Sports betting

A proposal to legalize sports betting in Minnesota didn’t come to fruition in time to come up for floor votes Sunday. That despite a bipartisan group working on the legislation reaching a last-minute agreement on a bill that could satisfy Native American tribes and race tracks.

Both chambers approved a bill this weekend that would prohibit race tracks from offering historical horse racing, a casino-style game. DFL leaders said historical horse racing is a priority because they felt the Minnesota Racing Commission took an unlawful action earlier this year when it allowed horse racing tracks to offer the casino-style games.

Cannabis regulations

The Minnesota House and Senate approved a bill this weekend that would speed up the process for getting cannabis dispensaries lined up by giving them a route to pre-approval of operating licenses.

Lawmakers voted to allow the office to start issuing license pre-approvals this summer. Supporters say that would allow them to secure funding, rent real estate and take other steps to get up and running. In less than a year, the state expects a broader array of cannabis stores to be up and running. Before that can happen, growers and distributors will have to get licensed through the state. It moves next to the governor’s desk for approval.