AP NEWS

Senate GOP delays ‘lights on’ bill vote amid budget talks

May 17, 2019
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The Minnesota House chamber at the state Capitol in St. Paul sits mostly empty Thursday, May 16, 2019, in St. Paul, Minn., as leaders work behind the scenes to try wrap up a budget deal in hopes of avoiding a stalemate that could require a special session. (AP Photo/Steve Karnowski)

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — With budget negotiations at a sensitive stage, the Republican-controlled Minnesota Senate held off Friday evening on passing a measure to prevent a state government shutdown if legislative leaders and Democratic Gov. Tim Walz can’t agree on a budget deal before the current budget expires June 30.

Senate Republicans made the chess move of proposing a “lights on” bill Thursday evening as talks bogged down among the governor and leaders of the Senate GOP and House Democratic majorities. Senate Finance Committee Chair Julie Rosen said then that the talks were at “somewhat of an impasse.”

However, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka sounded a more hopeful tone after meeting with the governor Friday, and after the Senate postponed the expected vote indefinitely. He said the sides were “not quite there” but that they were still talking.

“I hope to get there, I believe we’re not too far off,” Gazelka told reporters. He added that he couldn’t disclose the sticking points “because the negotiations right now are too sensitive.”

Under the state Constitution, the legislative session must adjourn Monday night. The governor has met daily with Gazelka and House Speaker Melissa Hortman all week, often late into the night, without reaching an overall agreement on taxes, spending and policy initiatives. None of the leaders have said much publicly on what the remaining differences holding up the two-year budget might be.

Democratic House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler told Minnesota Public Radio that he believes the Legislature will need a special session to finish its work, just to process the bills “in an orderly fashion and make sure they are not filled with mistakes.” But Gazelka said he believes “there’s an opportunity to get done on time.”

Democratic Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk — who told reporters that he had spoken with Walz but wasn’t privy to the state of the negotiations — said he thought it was still possible to finish on Monday if the top leaders reached an agreement Friday night. He reiterated that he’s willing to supply some Democratic votes if necessary.

The “lights on bill” would keep spending levels at about what the Senate GOP proposed originally, while shelving Democratic proposals for raising the state’s gas tax and preserving a tax on health care providers that expires at year’s end. It would also block the rest of the Democrats’ ambitious agendas on education, health care and other policy initiatives.

And if Democrats reject the budget extension, Republicans could blame them for any resulting state government shutdown including disruptions in services, closures of state parks and highway rest stops, and furloughs of state workers.

If the Legislature fails to finish its work by Monday night, Walz would need to call them back into special session. He could do so as early as 12:01 a.m. Tuesday, immediately after the deadline. He could call it for next week in hopes of finishing before the Memorial Day holiday weekend. Or he could wait until sometime later in June as the pressure builds.

Special sessions have become almost the norm for completing budgets in Minnesota’s recent decades, especially when control of state government is divided.

Three of the four budgets under previous Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton required special sessions. The only one that didn’t was in 2013, the last time Democrats controlled both the House and Senate. The bitter budget fight of 2011 led to a 20-day partial government shutdown. Dayton’s predecessor, Republican Tim Pawlenty, had to call special sessions to complete the 2003 and 2005 budgets, when Democrats controlled the Senate.

Walz isn’t likely to call a special session without agreement on all the details. While it’s up to governors to summon lawmakers back to the Capitol, it’s up to the House and Senate to decide when to adjourn.