Gov. Tim Walz and legislative leaders struck a budget deal in the early morning hours on Monday, a development that almost assures the Minnesota Legislature will be able to pass a budget at a special session sometime in June.
We say "almost" because a number of policy issues remain unresolved, and though leaders were quick to say they believe the deal will hold up, these are enormous disputes on major issues involving police reform, Walz's ongoing emergency powers, and environmental rules relating to climate change. "This is a numbers-only agreement," DFL House Speaker Melissa Hortman stressed at a Monday news conference.
With that proviso, however, there is much to praise in the $52 billion, two-year budget deal. It features historic investments in E-12 education — including funding for summer school that's so vital to students who fell behind during a year of mostly online pedagogy.
Although the deal offers welcome certainty that Paycheck Protection Program loans for businesses and unemployment benefits for those who lost jobs will be exempt from state taxes, it did not come in time for the vast majority of Minnesotans who have already filed their taxes. But officials are looking for ways to avoid refiling by affected taxpayers. "This puts money on the bottom line for our rainy day fund," Walz said of the agreement. "It invests in our businesses, children and infrastructure."
Democrats had to ditch their pitch for higher taxes on top wage earners and corporations, along with gas and tobacco tax increases. Republicans wanted Walz to give up his emergency powers, but they remain in place for at least another month. House and Senate leaders and the governor struck a deal that gives Walz autonomy over a chunk of federal COVID-related funds his office needs to expand vaccination and testing sites, while the Legislature retains oversight on the majority of remaining federal funds.
These are difficult compromises, not easy to achieve. "We balanced the budget without raising taxes, we prioritized education, resources for health care. ... It was a fair compromise," said Republican Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka. Each side, he noted, had to give up things it wanted. And, he added, the work is not done and in some respects is just beginning.
The looming special session has become a distressingly regular feature of government in Minnesota, where all but a few budget-year sessions since 2001 have included them. There have also been two partial shutdowns in that time. Leaders deserve credit for avoiding that scenario this time around.
That said, all the blame for the overtime period should not be laid at the feet of divided government, which Minnesota has had before. In comparing legislative sessions of the past to those of today, Hortman said the work "is far different" from when the Legislature first set up its 120-day sessions, but called it "a reform for another day."
That day should come sooner rather than later. If the current structure is no longer tenable, that is understandable. But to keep faith with the public, it should be changed so that expectations can be realigned with political realities.
As the Star Tribune Editorial Board argued on Sunday, the Legislature also should ensure that in the weeks leading up to a June special session there will be greater transparency for the public and more opportunities to weigh in, including in person.
The issues surrounding police reforms and the availability of electric vehicles to combat climate change could yet prove critical to an overall deal and are of vital concern to many Minnesotans.