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2019 brings a new mix to Minnesota’s big conference table

May 5, 2019
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In this Friday, May 3, 2019, photo, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz speaks at a news conference in the state Capitol in St. Paul, Minnesota, in favor of a proposal for paid family and medical leave. Listening to the governor is Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan. There's a new mix at Minnesota's big conference table for the always-contentious negotiations at the end of the legislative session over the big questions of taxes and spending. It's the first budget for Walz and the first as the top House Democrat for Speaker Melissa Hortman. GOP Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka is back and will play a decisive role as the May 20 adjournment looms. (AP Photo/Steve Karnowski)

ST.PAUL, Minn. (AP) — There’s a new mix at Minnesota’s big conference table for the always-contentious negotiations at the end of the legislative session over the big questions of taxes and spending.

It’s the first budget for Democratic Gov. Tim Walz, and Speaker Melissa Hortman’s first as the top House Democrat. GOP Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka — who served as something of a peacemaker in the acrimonious budget fights of 2017 and 2018 — is back as the top Senate Republican and will play a decisive role in shaping the next two-year budget as the May 20 adjournment date looms.

The big question on just about any proposal from Walz or the House Democratic majority has been whether it can pass the GOP-controlled Senate. Despite just a three-seat majority, Gazelka hasn’t suffered any significant defections so far.

Here’s a look at the key players and their priorities for the crucial end-of-session negotiations:

GOV. TIM WALZ

The former congressman from Mankato proposed an ambitious budget that emphasized education, health care and prosperous communities — with new spending and higher taxes to pay for them. His budget largely mirrored the campaign themes that got him elected and helped Democrats retake control of the House.

Walz’s challenge now is how much of that agenda can survive the need for compromises with Senate Republicans — and how much gets dropped to become part of the Democratic platform for Campaign 2020.

“I think there’s every reason to be skeptical,” he said late last week about chances for a tidy finish, “because history has proven that to be a pretty safe bet, but we’ve got new folks here, there’s a new tone.”

Walz has said repeatedly that there are only two issues on which he won’t compromise. The most important is preserving the state’s Health Care Access Fund, which helps fund care programs including Medicaid and MinnesotaCare. It’s replenished by a 2 percent tax on health care providers that Republicans want to let expire at year’s end, cutting revenues around $700 million annually. The governor’s other red line is releasing all of the $6.6 million in federal election security money that the state has already received but Senate Republicans have bottled up.

SENATE MAJORITY LEADER PAUL GAZELKA

The soft-spoken Nisswa Republican can be seen as Minnesota’s most powerful legislative leader because he and his colleagues can — and have — blocked much of what Democrats want. House Democrats have countered by wrapping many of their priorities into their budget bills in hopes that some pass as part of the final deal.

Both Gazelka and Walz go to lengths to compliment each other when they find common ground — most recently when Walz decided to cut the state’s losses and kill the balky vehicle registration system known as MNLARS. But Gazelka is trying to keep expectations low.

“We simply say, let’s pass the two-year budget with the resources we have,” he said.

One of Gazelka’s red lines is one of the governor’s signature proposals — raising the state’s gas tax by 20 cents to pay for better roads and bridges. Another has been gun control, which is part of the House public safety budget bill. Gazelka has declared that issue dead for the session.

HOUSE SPEAKER MELISSA HORTMAN

The Brooklyn Park Democrat, a veteran leader within her caucus, was the impetus for setting early deadlines for the various stages of the legislative process to try to avoid the traditional scenario of making all the major decisions behind closed doors in the final days and hours.

Hortman and her top deputy, House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, have been calm but firm in promoting the House Democratic agenda, which closely tracks with the governor’s. Still, the speaker has been careful to avoid digging in too firmly.

“I don’t think it’s constructive when people throw out red lines,” she said. “I definitely have some very high priorities. But I think that to preserve the potential success of the negotiations I want also to preserve maximum creativity and flexibility. There’s a lot of different ways to accomplish my hard-core objectives.”

SENATE MINORITY LEADER TOM BAKK

The Democrat from Cook could play a sleeper role in forging end-of-session deals if Democratic votes are needed to form a majority given the Senate GOP’s slim edge. He’s been the Senate’s top Democrat since 2011, including four years as majority leader in the 2013-16 sessions.

HOUSE MINORITY LEADER KURT DAUDT

The outspoken Republican from Crown has lost most of the clout he had in 2017-18 when the GOP controlled the House and he did battle as speaker against then-Gov. Mark Dayton. But Daudt and his colleagues have forced countless roll calls votes against Democrats’ agenda that will provide fodder for GOP efforts to reclaim the House in 2020.