Minnesota Capitol dome (Photo: Kevin Featherly)
Commissioner: Reserves could fund prisons ‘a week, maybe two’ with no budget deal
The three members of the Capitol “tribunal” agree—the judiciary/public safety budget-and-policy bill looks to be the heaviest lift remaining as state government gradually slides toward potential shutdown territory on July 1.
House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, and Gov. Tim Walz all spoke to the media Monday. Each described the progress of budget negotiations as the special session launched into its second week.
“Public safety will be difficult,” Hortman said. “It’s a complicated and heart-wrenching bill to put together.”
“I do think that’s going to be a hard one,” Walz agreed. “It’s become really politically charged.”
“The public safety bill has a little more work to do,” allowed Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake. But he added, “It’s my commitment that we not get to July 1. I just think that would be really bad for Minnesota.”
Ironically, most issues connected to the public safety bill actually are resolved. Whether and how to bolster police accountability remains the primary problem. That controversy has prevented introduction of a new budget bill for the finance division that funds cops, courts and corrections.
House Democrats proposed more than 100 police-reform measures in their regular session omnibus, though they narrowed that down to 12 in an early May regular-session offer.
Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Committee chair Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, said last week that he has offered five specific police-reform measures to his House counterpart, Public Safety Chair Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul. Gazelka, meanwhile, mentioned a sixth offer—DNR body cams—that was not on Limmer’s list.
Mariani said last week that his caucus has accepted only three of the GOP’s offers. For Mariani, the test is what communities traumatized by police-involved killings want out of reform legislation, not what the Senate is willing to concede.
“Ask communities if the Senate is even close to answering their call to end this,” Mariani said last week. “I am confident they will say, ‘Not at all.’”
Whatever comes out that process, Gazelka said the one thing he insists on is that a final bill contain no “anti-policing measures.” The handful of GOP police policies now on offer, he said, likely are as far as the upper chamber will budge.
“There’s not many more that we would take,” he said. “If any more.”
Tribunal, Mach II
It’s plain at this point that Gazelka, Hortman and Walz are now deeply and openly ensconced in budget talks—Hortman on Monday made passing reference to negotiations that “the leaders took over.”
So “the tribunal”—the sardonic label given the trio in 2019 for deciding what went in and came out of some budget bills—is alive and well.
Still, in statements to WCCO Radio last week, Hortman suggested the group is operating differently now. It offers advice, she said, but urges committee chairs ultimately to decide which measures to keep and which to ditch.
Gazelka agreed, saying that he, Walz and Hortman “don’t really want the bills to come up to us.” Said Gazelka:
“If a bill comes up to us, we circle back and try to help the committees find the solutions that they need to get it done.”
All three leaders also appear to agree that hopes for concluding the special session by the end of this week are overly optimistic. That means things could drift perilously close to the drop-dead June 30 budget deadline.
“We’re not leaving until we are done,” Hortman said. “So that means it could be a pretty intensive weekend.”
Among the three leaders, Gazelka seemed most guardedly optimistic for an earlier conclusion. Most agreements are either in place or nearly so, he said. He even suggested the session could end this week. But he hedged when a reporter pressed him on the question.
“If you were a handicapper, what are the chances you’re still here a week from Wednesday?” he was asked.
“Zero,” Gazelka replied.
“You’ll be done this week, you believe?” the reporter followed up.
“Well, you said a week from Wednesday,” Gazelka answered with a wry smile.
During his Monday press conference, Walz said it is a special session reality that, where talks are stalled, lawmakers probably will have to surrender some priorities.
“Some of those most divisive of things are probably not going to get done,” Walz said. “Or they’re probably going to have to wait to another day.”
He said the state Supreme Court’s 90th Minnesota State Senate v. Dayton decision from 2017 creates a much different landscape than existed in previous shutdowns. Courts no longer will appropriate emergency funds to keep government running at partial strength, that ruling said.
The implications are potentially enormous. Walz, for example, said he and Corrections Commission Paul Schnell are struggling to come to grips with what a hard shutdown would mean for state prisons, if a public safety bill doesn’t pass. Minnesota is constitutionally obligated to care for the health and well-being of its prisoners.
“There’s an interpretation that says we can’t fund these services and we would have to theoretically open the doors [of the prisons]. We’re not going to do that,” the governor said.
“The question,” he continued, “will be how do I legally, then, keep that open and how do I pay people to manage that service when the courts—in our interpretation, I think—said you can’t do that.”
Walz said Corrections officials are sketching out what “a bare bones, lights-on DOC” would look like and how it would operate.
“None of this is meant to scare people,” Walz said. “But there’s a very clear court case in our opinion that described what happens if you can’t get this work done.”
In an interview Tuesday afternoon, DOC Commissioner Schnell said the prisons could run briefly during a shutdown without new funding, if the department taps into MINNCOR reserves and some other cash it has on hand—perhaps $20 million total.
That money would keep the prison system functioning for about a week, Schnell estimated, if non-mandated services like drug treatment and education were suspended.
As to whether he agrees with Walz that the 2017 court decision could—worst case—close down prisons if a finance bill fails to pass, Schnell said the question is serious and legitimate, but it’s almost too big to answer.
“I just can’t fathom that,” he said.
It’s important to note that a lot of work is actually getting accomplished at the Capitol.
On Tuesday, the Senate passed its version of a jobs bill, which the House must now take up. The Senate also passed its ag/broadband bill Tuesday. Having already cleared the House, that bill, too, heads to the governor’s office.
The Senate debated a transportation package Tuesday as well, but tabled it to await a House floor vote, which is expected Wednesday.
Gazelka said an evening floor session Tuesday was possible to consider the Senate’s commerce-and-energy bill and the environment omnibus. Senate Finance wrapped up work on the latter bill just as this story was being published.
The House on Monday, passed its own omnibus commerce and energy bill after passing Legacy funding, ag/broadband and higher-ed over the weekend.
The House held a brief floor session Tuesday, but it had no bills to take up and recessed. It is expected to debate the transportation bill Wednesday and the housing omnibus bill on Thursday.
Bills in other areas like K-12 education, health and human services, state government and public safety remain works in progress, though an agreement on the education bill reportedly is in place.
Late Tuesday afternoon, MPR’s Brian Bakst quoted Hortman on Twitter saying that, of the remaining bills, public safety/judiciary is the last one where “major offers are still being exchanged.”