Minnesota budget negotiations start with mask concerns, technology issue

Before Minnesota lawmakers could get started with negotiations over the $52 billion state budget Wednesday, they had to answer a simple, yet politically charged question: to mask or not to mask?

The DFL-controlled House has a mask mandate in parts of the Capitol it controls, while the Republican-led Senate does not. That difference is magnified when the two sides get together for budget negotiations because control over the conference committee gavel passes between the House and Senate every day.

In the economic development conference committee, state Sen. Eric Pratt made clear that he would not impose a mask requirement when he has the gavel, while state Rep. Mohamud Noor said he would conduct meetings virtually when he has control.

"We leave that (mask-wearing) to the discretion of the individual members," said Pratt, R-Prior Lake, noting that members could participate virtually if they wanted. "We're not going to ask anyone to come here if they're uncomfortable."

For many lawmakers, the conference committee negotiating sessions will be the first time all year they've attended an in-person meeting. The House has held its hearings online, while the Senate has done some limited in-person committee work. 

"This is the first time we're doing an in-person committee hearing. We've come a long way," said Noor, DFL-Minneapolis. "We are all extending ourselves to be sitting at the table."

State Sen. Rich Draheim made clear he would not wear a mask at the committee table, though he said he would wear a mask if someone approached him and when entering and leaving the room.

"I don't mean to disrespect you," Draheim, R-Madison Lake, told House members. "I have one of my vaccinations. I have my other one on Tuesday. So everybody knows, I wouldn't be here if I didn't feel good."

Gov. Tim Walz's statewide mask mandate doesn't apply to the Legislature because it's a separate branch of government. Masking has sharply divided lawmakers along party lines.

Conference committees are already highly charged, as lawmakers take competing priorities and try to merge them into one bill that can pass both the House and Senate. Two years ago -- before the pandemic -- the committees broke down, leading top officials to hammer out deals in private talks before the Legislature returned for a special session to approve the state budget.

This year, the country's only divided Legislature faces major decisions about taxes, police accountability measures, and more. Lawmakers must adjourn by May 17, though Gov. Tim Walz can call them back for a special session. If lawmakers don't pass a budget by July 1, state government shuts down.

The Higher Education conference committee also met Wednesday, and a technology issue temporarily derailed lawmakers. Most on the panel were participating remotely.

"Unbelievable," muttered Senate Higher Education chairman David Tomassoni, I-Chisholm, as another member's audio connection kept dropping. 

Outside the hearing rooms, staffers set up a table where attendees had to sign a form for COVID contact tracing. The Capitol itself is still closed, meaning only lawmakers, staffers and a few journalists are walking the halls.