Minnesota budget talks devolve into bickering over emojis

Negotiations over Minnesota’s nearly $50 billion state budget started promisingly Monday before lawmakers started bickering over emojis and questioning each other’s intentions.

Gov. Tim Walz, House Democrats and Senate Republicans remain more than $1 billion apart after three separate counteroffers. The biggest sticking points are over taxes: Walz and House Democrats have proposed a 20-cent per gallon gas tax increase and an extension of the state’s tax on medical providers, but Senate Republicans remain opposed to raising the gas tax by a penny or keeping the medical provider tax in place.

Lawmakers warn that they and Walz must strike a deal by noon Wednesday if the Legislature is to have enough time to pass its budget bills by the end of session May 20. 

“It doesn’t feel like we’re in a good spot,” said Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, as he stood next to an emoji-filled poster highlighting the Senate Republicans’ budget proposal at a news conference.

With the impasse setting in, Democratic House Speaker Melissa Hortman blasted the emoji poster as a public relations stunt. Then Walz stepped to the microphone for a fiery 15-minute critique of the Republicans’ position.

“I don’t have fair partners to work with right now,” Walz told reporters. “They cannot stand in front of you with a straight face, no matter how many emojis are behind them.”

After each successive counteroffer, all three sides would leave their negotiating room in the governor’s state Capitol office to spin their positions to reporters standing in the hallway outside. It was not immediately clear why reporters were not allowed in the closed-door negotiating sessions in the first place.

Walz and lawmakers long ago blew through a May 6 deadline to agree on spending targets that would guide budget negotiations for the rest of session. Before Monday, they had abandoned the bargaining table for six days. Now, the prospect of a special session – or a government shutdown, if all sides can’t strike a deal by June 30 – looms.

The day started with Senate Republicans inching their original proposal upward by $75 million in new spending on K-12 education and $25 million on public safety – but without raising the gas tax or extending the state’s tax on medical providers. House Democrats and Walz said the GOP was raiding the state’s health care access fund to pay for the increases.

“The Senate’s offer is woefully inadequate,” Hortman said. “It continues to pit elderly and disabled Minnesotans and their health care against the schoolchildren of Minnesota.”

In 2011, Republican lawmakers and former Gov. Mark Dayton agreed to let the medical provider tax expire this year. Democrats are seeking to extend the tax, but Republicans said they are set against it.

Democrats and Walz, negotiating as one, then countered with a proposal to scale back their 20-cent per gallon gas tax increase by four cents.

“It is a tiny step. we'll just keep working on it,” Gazelka responded.

That was when Senate Republicans returned with their new proposal, refusing to move on either the gas tax or medical provider tax. It was unclear whether the sides would meet for a fourth round of negotiations Monday evening.

Hortman and Gazelka said Monday that they would need to reach a deal soon to get the budget bills to the Legislature’s nonpartisan drafters, who must compile thousands of pages of proposals before lawmakers can vote on them. 

While Minnesota’s Legislature has frequently gone to special sessions, government shutdowns have happened somewhat less often, mostly recently in 2013, 2005 and 2001.