Walz, legislative leaders announce deal to finish work on time

The three top officials at the Minnesota State Capitol said Monday that they had created self-imposed deadlines to avoid last-minute chaos this legislative session.

“Too often, Minnesota’s budget drafting process has resulted in a game of high stakes poker,” said House Speaker Melissa Hortman, a Democrat. 

Hortman listed years where the legislative process broke down, including 2005 and 2011, when there were government shutdowns. In 2018, lawmakers crammed months of priorities into two giant bills that then-Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed.

Since then, Democrats retook control of the House and Minnesota now has the only divided state legislature in the country. Gov. Tim Walz took office pledging to promote unity.

Against that backdrop, it still seemed unusual to see top officials announcing a deal essentially to do their jobs on time.

“Well, it says the bar’s pretty low, I guess,” Walz joked.

Lawmakers’ biggest priority in 2019 is to pass a two-year, $47 billion budget. Walz is scheduled to release his budget proposal on Feb. 19, giving lawmakers about three months to pass a spending plan before the Legislature adjourns May 20.

Under the deal announced Monday, the House and Senate must pass all major spending bills and send them to conference committees by May 1. Walz and the two legislative leaders must present their budget targets to the conference committees by May 6. The conference committee chairs are required to provide conference committee reports by May 13, giving lawmakers one week to approve the final budget.

The publicly announced deal could prove embarrassing if lawmakers cannot get the budget done on time.

“Setting this out there, without a doubt, has risks. But we think it’s in the benefit of Minnesota to do it,” said Gazelka, a Republican. “A press conference tells you we mean business about this.”

Walz predicted that the deadlines would lead to “much healthier, more substantive” debate. Hortman said public pressure would be good for lawmakers this year.

“The reason we’re announcing this publicly instead of having this be a deal between the three of us is we fully expect you will hold us accountable to meet these deadlines,” she told reporters.

Gazelka said some policy issues – including a bill imposing higher fees on drug companies to fund treatment and prevention of opioid addiction, and another bill banning drivers from using cell phones except in hands-free mode – would pass much earlier, perhaps by the end of March.