'Walz checks' fizzled. Here's why we'll keep hearing about them until November

It's hard to think of an issue that consumed more time yet moved so little during the 2022 Minnesota legislative session as rebate checks.

Gov. Tim Walz made three proposals for direct payments, each bigger than the previous one. His office called the initial proposal "Walz checks," then stopped referring to them that way. Republicans who control the Senate dismissed them as a gimmick. House Democrats didn't include checks in their end-of-session budget plans.

Walz's latest check size, which he told reporters about last week, is $1,000 per adult, using $4 billion of the state budget surplus. The cycle then repeated itself: Republicans rejected the idea, Walz went on a Sunday news program to repeat his pitch, Republicans again said no.

The issue will be central during the fall midterm, when the governor and all 201 legislative seats are up for re-election during a period of high inflation and economic uncertainty, said David Schultz, a Hamline University professor.

"I think it's a talking point for his (Walz's) campaign at this point to say, 'I wanted to give you money, I wanted to send you a check in the mail, and it was the Republicans who prevented us from doing that,'" Schultz said.

In January, Walz proposed $175 checks per adult, using $700 million of the budget surplus. In March, after state economists said the surplus would be larger than expected, the DFL governor increased the size of his check proposal to $500 per adult.

But neither the House nor Senate passed rebate checks before the session ended in late May.

The latest debate started June 13 when a FOX 9 reporter asked Walz at a news conference whether he was considering a special session to deal with the impact of inflation, which in May stood at a record 8.7% in the Twin Cities.

Walz said he was, then added that he wanted to increase the size of the rebate checks.

"Imagine $2,000 (per couple) back in the hands of people. That right there offsets the increase in gas and some of the food," Walz said.  "You can say what you want about this, but the only way you’re really going to make a dramatic difference in people’s gas prices and inflationary pressures is to give them a significant amount of money that goes to them right now."

Special session negotiations, which had not progressed to that point, officially ended three days later when Republicans said the sides remained too far apart on many issues.

Walz then went on a Sunday news show to make the case again for checks.

A day later, GOP governor candidate Dr. Scott Jensen's campaign sent out a news release telling Walz to call a special session immediately and "prove this isn't a gimmick," while a spokeswoman for Senate Republicans alluded to checks as an election tactic.

"During the legislative session, Senate Republicans passed permanent, ongoing tax relief of more than $8 billion so every person who pays taxes would receive immediate relief that doesn't go away with the election," said Rachel Aplikowski, the Senate GOP spokeswoman.

Lawmakers ultimately included a much smaller version of tax cuts in an end-of-session bill that didn't pass because it was linked to other spending measures that were never finalized.

Rebate checks will remain a hotly debated issue throughout the election season, Schultz said.

"What I wonder at some point is, does the public really hear it? Does the public really care one way or the other?" he said. "They’re simply thinking at this point, my difficulty in terms of filling up with gas, how much I’m paying for groceries, and I can’t find infant formula. I don’t think they really care where the blame is."