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Special session on the horizon, adult-use marijuana clears hurdle at Minnesota Capitol

As the clock ticked down on the legislative session, leaders suggested they'd need to work in overtime to get a state budget and other priorities finished.

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Minnesota Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, on Thursday, May 13, 2021, spoke to reporters at the Capitol about end-of-session negotiations. Dana Ferguson / Forum News Service
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ST. PAUL — The Minnesota Legislature geared up for overtime as the clock ticked down on the regular 2021 legislative session and top leaders and the governor failed to reach a deal.

Gov. Tim Walz; House Speaker Melissa Hortman, D-Brooklyn Park, and Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, spent days behind closed doors trying to bridge a $1 billion divide between DFL and GOP budget proposals and square dozens of policy priorities before turning loose budget targets. Late this week, they said they were still unable to reach a middle ground, though talks continued.

Meanwhile, leaders outside the discussions signaled that they were preparing to fold on some caucus priorities, possibly easing negotiations. And for the first time in state history, the Minnesota House of Representatives voted on legalizing marijuana for adult use.

Here's a look at what went down this week at the Capitol and what questions remain unresolved in the session's final days.

Special session inevitable

RELATED: 'Major roadblocks' slow budget deal at the Capitol, make overtime all but certain The comments come after three top leaders spent days in secret negotiations without a meaningful breakthrough.
Legislative leaders and the governor this week said legislative overtime would be inevitable. All three on Wednesday, May 13, said private negotiations about budget targets were ongoing and moving in the right direction, but they didn't have much to show for it.

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The leaders said they planned to hand down budget targets to committee chairpeople that would dictate how much lawmakers can spend on various areas of state government, but didn't give a timeline for when that might happen. Lawmakers face a May 17 deadline for the end of the legislative session. And they're expected to return for a special legislative session mid-June to weigh an extension of the governor's executive powers.

With that in mind, lawmakers said some of the typical end-of-session pressure had eased. And they planned to work through the next few weeks in hopes of passing a budget during that mid-June special session.

“We’re committed to not shutting down Minnesota but we’re also fighting for the things that we think are important,” Gazelka said. "We are trying to get done on the 17th, but we know there's another date out there that we could be aiming for."

Walz on Wednesday told reporters that significant philosophical differences remained between the two Democrats in the "cone of silence": he and Hortman and the one Republican: Gazelka.

And Hortman said she still hoped to wrap up most of the Legislature's work on time but anticipated that lawmakers would have more to do come June.

"What I'm driving toward is making sure every single thing we can wrap up by Monday is wrapped up and done," she said. "And everything we can have wrapped up and ready to go on Monday, June 14, is ready to go."

Lawmakers have a June 30 hard deadline to pass a budget. If they can't pass a budget before then, Minnesota could face a state government shutdown.

Dems loosen stance on tax hike

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Minnesota House Speaker Melissa Hortman, left, and House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, right, on Wednesday, May 12, 2021, said the budget negotiations were ongoing at the Minnesota Capitol but noted that lawmakers likely wouldn't finish their work before the legislative session was set to end on May 17. Dana Ferguson / Forum News Service

Walz and House Democrats entered budget negotiations with a tax hike on top earners as a top priority. They said students and workers were among the groups that suffered the most amid the pandemic and sought to use the new funds to boost schools and health care supports.

But top Democrats seemed to walk away from that position this week as the clock ticked down and as Republicans remained firm in their resolution to block any increases.

House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, D-Golden Valley, on Wednesday told reporters that federal COVID-19 aid funding could help ease the burden Minnesota schools have faced during the pandemic and help pay for the state's health care needs. Winkler noted that while still a priority, Democrats recognized that they'd have a difficult time getting any increases approved this year.

"The ability to get a fifth-tier tax increase passed with a Republican Senate has always been dubious," Winkler said.

Gazelka on Thursday, May 13, said he was glad to see Democrats move away from the push for additional taxes since the state stood to have money to spend due to federal boosts and budget surpluses.

"We don't need a tax increase on anyone. We have a $1.6 billion surplus, we've got $2.8 billion of extra money coming to the state from the federal government and then billions and billions of extra federal money that's come in to education and local governments, so there's plenty of money, we just don't need the tax increase," Gazelka said.

RELATED: What's at stake as the Minnesota Legislature enters its final week Tax hikes and the governor's emergency powers are two of several issues on the table as the Legislature enters the final run-up to its May 17 deadline.

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Marijuana legalization clears highest hurdle yet

The Minnesota House of Representatives late Thursday evening advanced a proposal to legalize marijuana for adults 21 and older.

It's the first time the proposal reached a full chamber vote in the state's history. And while momentous, supporters said it wasn't enough and pushed on GOP Senate leaders to hold hearings on the bill and pass it there.

Gazelka on Thursday said the proposal would go "up in smoke" in the Senate, indicating the bill will have a tough path forward this year. Gov. Tim Walz has said he supports the measure and would sign it if it reached his desk.

Follow Dana Ferguson on Twitter @bydanaferguson , call 651-290-0707 or email dferguson@forumcomm.com

Dana Ferguson is a Minnesota Capitol Correspondent for Forum News Service. Ferguson has covered state government and political stories since she joined the news service in 2018, reporting on the state's response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the divided Statehouse and the 2020 election.
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