Gov. Walz waits on special session with secret deals elusive

Gov. Tim Walz is waiting until at least Wednesday before calling lawmakers back to the Capitol to pass a $48 billion state budget, as secret negotiations have not yielded final agreements.

Lawmakers adjourned for the year Monday night after adopting just one of the nine budget bills, and without passing a tax bill. The House and Senate tried to rush through a second measure, the agriculture budget, but ran out of time.

“It’s been a long five months, and it’s kind of ending in a whimper,” Senate Democratic Leader Tom Bakk said as the clock neared the midnight deadline.

Top lawmakers and Walz say they’re optimistic that the budget will pass in a special session on Thursday and Friday. Little evidence is available to suggest that will happen – especially in the more contentious budget areas of public safety and health and human services.

Tuesday, the state Capitol was mostly silent. None of the “working groups” in each of the budget issue areas met publicly, and none of the legislative leaders nor Walz held news conferences to announce agreements.

Legislative leaders made a series of promises this year to adopt the budget in an open, transparent process. But in the final weeks, all major negotiations and agreements have played out in private.

A deal struck Sunday night between Walz, House Speaker Melissa Hortman and Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka allows the three of them to take control of the budget process away from the working groups. Tuesday, that’s just what they did in K-12 education.

Instead of allowing the working group to meet publicly, the three leaders came up with a deal themselves, scrawling their initials in the top right hand corner to signify the agreement. It wipes away the working group’s ability to negotiate over any policy changes that haven’t already been adopted.

Sunday night’s deal between the three leaders gave conference committees a 5 p.m. Monday deadline to finish their work, which none of them achieved. Instead, conference committee chairmen were summoned to meet with Walz, Hortman and Gazelka behind closed doors. A handful of the committees never met publicly before the midnight adjournment.

Three budget-related committees are scheduled to meet Wednesday, according to the online legislative calendar.

Top lawmakers gave various explanations for the secret negotiations and lack of public meetings.

“It’s just harder than you could imagine,” Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said Monday. “It’s psychology. How do we get to the end, and how do you ask somebody to dare to give up something that somebody around them might say is terrible?”

Hortman, speaking to reporters early Tuesday morning after the House adjourned, pointed at Senate Republicans as the reason for the secrecy.

“We are pushing as hard as we can for people to do as much as they can in public,” Hortman said. “It takes two to tango, and everybody’s got to be willing to do these discussions in the public.”

House Republican Leader Kurt Daudt put the blame on House Democrats.

“This has been the least productive, least transparent in the history of this state,” Daudt told reporters. “Minnesotans should be ashamed of the process at the end of this legislative session. They passed one budget bill to the governor’s desk.”