Minnesota Capitol reopens, public kept in the dark on budget negotiations

The Minnesota State Capitol opened to the public Thursday for the first time in more than 400 days, but there wasn't much legislative activity to see.

The state's $52 billion budget is unfinished ahead of a special session that Gov. Tim Walz plans to call Monday and a June 30 deadline to avoid a government shutdown. There were no public budget negotiations Thursday, and none are scheduled for Friday. Instead, Walz said he's meeting with agency commissioners and top lawmakers over video conferences to resolve sticking points.

Money isn't the issue: the state is flush with cash, as tax collections come in $1.8 billion above expectations in May and the state is getting $2.8 billion in federal stimulus money. Significant disagreements remain over several policy issues, including police changes and the state's eviction moratorium.

"I don’t think, for whatever reason, folks have come to that conclusion that they’re not going to get everything they want," Walz told reporters. "They’re going to have to compromise to get there."

The higher education and commerce budgets are the only ones that lawmakers say are resolved. Committee chairs appear much further apart on public safety, K-12 education, state government, health, and transportation, prompting the private video conferences starting Thursday afternoon.

House Speaker Melissa Hortman and Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka have consistently said that lawmakers will avoid a July 1 government shutdown by passing a budget. House GOP Leader Kurt Daudt said this week that the debate may go down to the wire.

"I think we're a long ways apart," said Daudt, R-Crown, who can lengthen the special session by not agreeing to a legislative procedure to speed up votes. "I have been telling people to plan on being in session from June 14 to July 1 at least. Who knows? It could go longer than that."

The Capitol's reopening did little to speed negotiations along because few lawmakers were even in the building. All committee rooms were locked in the Capitol.

The reopening adds a wrinkle into the special session because activists can put in-person pressure on lawmakers for the first time since before the COVID-19 pandemic. School voucher advocates crowded around Walz for a news conference adjacent to the Capitol rotunda Thursday afternoon, prompting the governor's team to move a makeshift podium so activists wouldn't be directly behind him.

"What are you afraid of?" one called out.

Walz said he was optimistic that the divided Legislature would pass budget bills next week, several days before the June 30 deadline, if lawmakers jettison controversial policy requests.

"There’s no excuse not to do it. We are now down to the end of the wire. You want a whole bunch of things done on this. It isn’t going to happen," Walz said.

Walz himself has held several news conferences pressing lawmakers to pass tougher police oversight measures, many of which Senate Republicans oppose. But he has ditched his pursuit of tax increases on wealthy Minnesotans and corporations after Republicans vowed to block them.

The governor said he would issue another 30-day extension of his COVID-19 peacetime emergency on Monday and said it would likely be one of the last times he would do so. The issue has been highly charged, with the GOP-controlled Senate voting several times to end Walz's powers. The DFL-led House has never voted to end the emergency.