Senate Republicans advance shutdown bill, Walz breaks silence

Senate Republicans passed a bill Saturday to keep the lights on at state agencies if Minnesota government shuts down, drawing accusations from Democrats that they were trying to run out the clock on a budget deal.

Gov. Tim Walz, House Speaker Melissa Hortman and Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka met twice Saturday, but only briefly. No further meetings were scheduled as of Saturday evening. The legislative session will end Monday, deal or no deal, and a special session is virtually assured.

Walz on Saturday broke his two-day silence over the budget stalemate, laying into Senate Republicans during a brief but fiery speech to hundreds of teachers in the Capitol rotunda.

“Here’s the deal: We’ve got three dozen people that need to hear our voices roar. We’ve got two days to roar. Let’s do it!” Walz said, straining to speak over loud cheering.

Education funding is one of the areas where Walz, Senate Republicans and House Democrats are furthest apart. Tax increases are the major sticking point: Democrats say new investments in education, health care and roads aren’t possible without more revenue; Republicans pledge to oppose any tax hike.

As the governor was getting a rock star reception from members of Education Minnesota, the statewide teachers’ union, the Senate was locked in its own noisy debate one floor above.

On a 35-31 party-line vote, Republicans sped through their shutdown contingency bill. It allows them to walk away from budget negotiations with Walz, and forces Democrats to decide whether to support the measure or risk a government shutdown.

Senate Democrats accused their GOP counterparts of throwing in the towel on trying to reach a deal.

“Get back to the bargaining table with the governor. There’s time to get this done,” Senate Democratic Leader Tom Bakk, referring to the bill as a “stunt.”

Bakk held up hundreds of pages of budget papers and said lawmakers would have little to show for nearly five months of negotiations if they passed the contingency funding bill, which fits on a single printed page.

The GOP funding bill allows state agencies to spend at levels higher than the current two-year budget, but below the budgets that either Walz, the House or the Senate initially proposed.

Republicans said they were not planning to walk away from budget negotiations and viewed the contingency bill as a “Plan B” that would keep state employees on the job and state facilities open on July 1.

“Your alternative is worse. It’s to do nothing, sit on your hands, play games with that, and just hope,” said state Sen. Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes, in comments directed at Democrats.

House Democratic leaders did not immediately comment on the bill’s passage, but House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler criticized the legislation during an appearance on public television Friday evening. A House DFL caucus spokeswoman echoed the line that Republicans “are throwing in the towel too soon.”

Chamberlain said House Democrats were putting Minnesotans at risk by not considering the measure.

“It’s a game of chicken and it’s not a good thing to do with the people of this state,” he told reporters during a news conference.