Budget talks have largely broken down in St. Paul, with both sides pointing fingers at their counterparts and citing a disregard for good faith negotiations.
In the split Minnesota Legislature, House DFLers and Senate Republicans-along with Gov. Tim Walz-are grappling over a $49 billion budget. Key sticking points in negotiations include a proposed 70% increase to the gas tax, an ambitious paid-leave policy with up to 24 weeks for employees, a 2% provider's tax on the health care industry and beefed up allocations for education in the hundreds of millions.
Essentially, the issue at hand is how lawmakers look to bridge a roughly $2 billion gap between the Republican proposed budget in the Senate with DFL proposals inked by the House and Walz administration.
Talks broke down Monday evening, May 6. Subsequently, leaders from both parties have leveled blame at the opposition, as Forum News Service reported.
"I am disappointed Gov. Walz and Speaker Hortman have so far refused to drop even one cent of their massive four-year $12 billion tax increase agenda," Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, said in a statement Tuesday morning. His office did not return requests Wednesday for comment. "Serious negotiations can continue when St. Paul Democrats realize we can't keep taxing people out of independence and prosperity by promising them a public program to help them instead."
In return, DFL heads in the state Legislature denounced Gazelka's statements as disingenuous. House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said Gazelka mischaracterized the DFL's participation in negotiations, pointing to a proposed $200 million concession by the governor and a proposed $664 million concession by her caucus, decidedly not a refusal to "drop even one cent." Republicans rejected both, she added.
"The big challenge is not having anyone to negotiate with on the other side," House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, said during a phone interview Wednesday. "The House and the governor have both tried to come down, and unless we have some movement from Sen. Gazelka to go in a compromised direction, there's nothing to negotiate. We can't negotiate with ourselves. We're certainly not going to drop all our proposals because Republicans want to say no to everything."
Winkler characterized Gazelka's strategy as a bid to push the envelope and bank on DFLers underselling their initiatives for the sake of an 11th hour deal to avoid a shutdown. He added that's not going to happen when the futures of poorer working-class families and vulnerable students, many of them in Greater Minnesota, depend on the implementation of DFL policies.
If that happens, it will have to happen despite fervor from Republicans and members of the business community who decry a DFL-backed proposal for $3.8 billion in increased spending over the next four years.
"We're very opposed," Gazelka told the Dispatch during a phone call Thursday, May 2. "And I think all of Minnesota is with us."
"The fact of the matter is that we don't have tons of money sitting around everywhere," said Winkler, who pointed to declining health care, a D minus rated roadway system and slashed public education funding across the state. "If we want great schools, if we want great health care, if we want great roads, then we have to pay for them. Republicans are standing for the proposition that these things aren't worth paying for. We are."
The hiked gas tax looks to be one of the most polarizing pieces of legislation-fostering strong support from many DFLers, while simultaneously drawing deep-seated derision from Republicans.
In a phone conversation with the Dispatch, state Rep. Dale Lueck, R-Aitkin, wouldn't waste more than a single word on the subject.
"Ridiculous," said Lueck, who in an official statement blasted the 70% gas tax increase as a thinly-veiled "bait and switch" to funnel more away from poorer Minnesotans and into other, non-infrastructure related funds to the tune of $417 million.
Winkler, on the other hand, said the gas tax serves as one of the main forms of funding for statewide infrastructure, as in keeping with the Minnesota State Constitution.
"When the Department of Transportation is planning out its construction plans they have to 10, and 20, and 30 years," Winkler said. "So an ongoing steady stream of funding from the gas tax allows them to do that kind of planning and put our roads in good repair."
In discussions over higher education funding-where lawmakers are haggling over the current tuition freeze and how much to allocate in funding for students and universities, among other areas-state Rep. Josh Heintzeman, R-Nisswa, described the situation as one where DFLers have forced themselves into a difficult position with little wiggle-room for negotiations. This, despite a similar desire to stronger education financing from Republicans.
"Unfortunately Democrat proposals include spending increases in virtually every area of Minnesota government and require massive tax and fee increases to fund our children's future," Heintzeman wrote to the Dispatch. "Hopefully the governor is willing to negotiate with Senate Republicans to cut waste and fraud, freeing up resources and avoiding a shutdown."