Tensions flare at Minnesota Capitol as debates stretch on; DFLers say they’ll push ahead with ERA measure

Published 5:05 pm Thursday, May 16, 2024

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By Dana Ferguson, Minnesota Public Radio News

Democrats who hold all three levers of power at the Minnesota Capitol said Thursday that they would shut down long speeches that have impaired their ability to pass bills in the final days of the legislative session.

The move came less than a day after DFL Speaker Melissa Hortman called a snap vote on a bill making changes to a new paid family and medical leave program, an illustration of a possibly bumpy push to the session’s finish this weekend.

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Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said that after eight hours of debate on the paid-leave proposal, it was time to bring the bill to a vote. Republicans shouted and called out various points of order during the vote. They said that they’d been silenced by the move to call the vote with no notice.

“Minnesotans sent us here to deliver, we will deliver we’ll get the work done,” Hortman said Thursday. “Just as the rules provide that the minority has a right to be heard, the rules of the House also provide that the majority has the right and the responsibility to govern.”

Hortman said that would mean approving nearly 20 budget touch-up bills, an equal rights amendment, a sports betting bill and other priorities before the deadline to vote on bill Sunday at 11:59 p.m.

She said the House would move forward with a vote on the equal rights amendment that contains protections for gender identity and pregnancy outcomes on Friday, even if that meant spiking a capital investment bill for the year. Republicans have said they would withhold votes on a capital investment package unless Democrats tabled the ballot question.

“It’s time for us to expand civil rights clearly in our Constitution to include everyone,” Hortman said. “And the Republicans may want to fight that. But we are just as determined, if not more, to fight for it.”

House Minority Leader Lisa Demuth said Thursday that she viewed the move to cut off debate late Wednesday as silencing the minority.

“By limiting the debate, the majority party is not only disrespecting the minority. They are also disregarding every constituent that we were here that we are here and elected to serve,” the Cold Spring Republican said.

“Every voice, regardless of party affiliation deserves to be heard, and given the opportunity to contribute to the decision making process. So this heavy handed approach to governance sets an extremely dangerous precedent,” she continued.

Demuth said while there could still be negotiations to end session with a bonding bill and other priorities, Republicans took the move seriously and grind things to a halt at the Capitol.

“I would say everything is at risk right now: bonding, sports betting, Uber/Lyft,” Demuth said. “Everything where Republican votes may be needed is at risk because of the action taken last night.”

At an event away from the Capitol, Gov. Tim Walz expressed optimism that deals could come together. He passed off the late-night flare-up as typical of this time of year.

“Not a lot of good happens after midnight. I would always encourage people, let’s finish before those times, get things done because tempers get a little short,” Walz said.

He said he hopes negotiations were close enough on some items, including a public infrastructure plan, that they could withstand hard feelings. “Let’s reach a compromise,” he said, adding that the sides were just “a couple of percentage points away” at last check.

Three voting days remain for lawmakers to take up and pass remaining budget bills, a public construction projects bill, an equal rights amendment, sports betting legalization bill and minimum wage for rideshare drivers on their calendar.

While DFL and GOP leaders have met for private talks to reach an agreement about closing out the session on time, they’ve so far failed to reach a deal.

In the DFL-controlled Legislature, members of the minority party don’t have many levers to pull to influence policy or spending decisions. But they can run down the clock to block discussion on some bills.

And that’s what they’ve done over the last week, launching seven or eight-hour-long debates about single bills. In the Senate, lawmakers met until just after 5:30 a.m. Thursday taking up a handful of bills.

On Wednesday, that chamber spent more than an hour on a motion to expel DFL Sen. Nicole Mitchell over her burglary arrest last month. GOP members said she should face expulsion for the alleged burglary of her stepmother’s home. Mitchell has said she was retrieving items of her late father’s. She is scheduled for a court hearing next month, after the legislative session adjourns.

Senate President Bobby Joe Champion, DFL-Minneapolis, paused discussion on a bill to admonish a GOP member who threw a rules book at him during an overnight debate.

“I’m going to try to be as gentle as possible because I know that tempers flare, we don’t always have to agree, that’s okay,” Champion said hours into a marathon floor session. “But it is inappropriate to come up and throw a rule book up at the president.”

GOP votes are needed to pass a construction projects bill — known as a bonding bill because the state issues debt to finance the work. Republicans have called for additional spending for rural emergency medical services providers, sought to block a vote on the equal rights amendment and worked to remove a provision in a bill boosting penalties for firearm straw buyers that expands rapid-fire trigger restrictions.

A $24-million boost for rural EMS providers got teed up for a Senate floor vote on Thursday, along with provisions of a capital investment bill. Republicans voiced frustration about the bills as they moved forward.

And a DFL-led conference committee approved a report that kept new trigger provisions in a bill boosting the penalty for buying a gun for someone not legally allowed to have it.

While legislative leaders said they remain hopeful about an on-time finish, there is no risk of a state government shutdown if lawmakers run out of time without completing everything.

The Legislature approved a two-year budget last year. Demuth told reporters that it might be a good thing for lawmakers to cut out early. She said DFL lawmakers “over-funded” the state last year.

“If we adjourn sine die tomorrow morning, as we got started, Minnesota would probably be better off than worse off,” she said.

MPR News politics fellow Ellie Roth contributed to this story.