Senate Republicans are no-shows to election security negotiations

Senate Republicans were no-shows to Tuesday’s negotiating session over whether to spend $6.6 million in federal money to protect Minnesota’s elections from foreign meddling, days after a federal investigation revealed the state was of interest to Russia in 2016.

Minnesota is the only state that hasn’t accepted its share of funding under the federal Help America Vote Act, which lawmakers refer to as HAVA. Democrats are advocating for accepting the full amount, and Gov. Tim Walz said it was one of two issues that were not negotiable to him.

“This is a clearly blatant obstruction of a piece of legislation that everybody agrees needs to be done,” Walz told reporters.

Late Tuesday, Senate Republicans said in an emailed statement that they were not invited to Tuesday’s conference committee and could not attend.

“The Senate was never included in the scheduling discussions on this conference committee today, and we informed the House and Secretary’s office we could not be there should they decide to host it. They decided to meet anyway,” state Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, said in the statement.

The back-and-forth is the latest twist in what was once considered to be an easy “early win” for Minnesota’s divided Legislature. Three months later, lawmakers have returned from their weeklong spring break with just four weeks left in their session and a state budget to tackle.

Mueller’s report

Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report into Russian election interference, made public last week, said that President Donald Trump’s then-campaign manager and a Russian operative discussed Minnesota as a battleground state of interest in August 2016.

Russian operatives targeted Minnesota with social media advertising, and Homeland Security officials have said Russian hackers unsuccessfully attempted to gain access to the state’s systems in 2016.

Whatever Senate Republicans’ concerns are about accepting the $6.6 million in federal funding, their leader wouldn’t say during a news conference Tuesday afternoon.

“HAVA will get done by the end of session,” Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said, repeating the line again when asked about negotiations.

Meanwhile, during his own news conference, Walz appeared to foreshadow that Republicans wouldn’t attend the conference committee meeting.

“I think it could be telling today, if they choose not to show up at this, that could make for a very hard four weeks,” Walz said, “because it’s going to show you that obstruction is the name of the game, compromise is not in the vocabulary.”

In her statement, Kiffmeyer downplayed the need to accept all $6.6 million right away.

“Minnesota’s elections are secure,” she said. “Because we use paper ballots, the votes cannot be hacked. We always have a hard copy of the election results available for inspection. We will continue to examine the use of the Secretary of State’s office funds to be sure his priority is on election security and integrity.”

Not the only concern

With lawmakers facing a May 20 deadline, House Democrats and Senate Republicans remain far apart on the biggest budget priorities, including a potential gas tax increase and a continuation of Minnesota’s tax on medical providers.

Democrats say the state needs new revenue to fund road improvements and health care programs.

“There is no way that we can make a significant difference for Minnesota’s kids, for people’s health care, for transportation, for higher education -- there’s no way that we can make a difference in any of those places without some new revenue,” said House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley.

Walz said the tax on medical providers was his second non-negotiable issue, and has said allowing it to expire would blow a $1 billion hole in the budget for future years.

Republicans have proposed allowing the tax to sunset later this year as scheduled. They’ve put forward plans to spend significantly less than Walz or House Democrats.

“First of all, I’m going to stand with the taxpayer,” Gazelka said. “I’m confident we’ll get (a finished budget), but I want to tamp down some of the expectations and spending increases that the governor and the House want.”

Both the House and Senate face a May 1 deadline to pass their spending bills before conference committees can start negotiations.