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Minnesota special session moving slowly but surely

Legislative leaders and Governor Tim Walz were optimistic lawmakers will be able to pass a two-year budget and avert a July 1 state government shutdown.

ST PAUL, Minn. — Much is riding on the first special session of 2021, and there's a growing recognition by many Minnesota lawmakers that a state government shutdown would be unacceptable.

That's why top legislative leaders and Gov. Tim Walz remain convinced the legislature will pass a two-year budget in the next week and avert a shutdown. Walz did acknowledge things are moving slower that he'd hoped.

"There's still a little time left and watching the legislature they feel the same sense of urgency," Walz told reporters Monday as the special session entered its second week.

"Folks who told me May 15th wasn't a real deadline, that May 30th wasn't a real deadline are now starting to feel like June 21st is a real deadline."

Walz said that state employees and vendors and contractors have been notified that a shutdown is a possibility, and road projects could stall if contractors have to close down job sites in anticipation of a shutdown. Walz said that winding down of construction projects could be averted if a transportation bill is passed by Thursday.

The "budget" is actually comprised of 12 spending bills and the tax bill. As of the end of Monday the House had passed four of the 12 spending bills, while the Senate had passed two of them.

Negotiations on others continued, and once deals are reached the nonpartisan Revisor of Statutes office put the language in bill form so that the House and Senate can schedule votes on them. 

There was a bit of horse trading happening behind the scenes at the Capitol. Iron Range lawmakers have said they'll support an engineering study of a land bridge to reconnect St. Paul's Rondo Neighborhood in exchange for metro lawmakers supporting state aid for an oriented strand board plant in Cohasset, Minn.

"We'll get that thing through and it will make a difference," Walz remarked.

"From the timber industry perspective, this is one of the biggest things we've seen in decades around this. I think it's a positive."

House Speaker Melissa Hortman told reporters she too believes a shutdown will be avoided, but said legislators could end up working until Monday, June 28 to get all of the issues settled and process those key 13 bills.

The DFL leader spoke for the first time publicly about the House GOP's filibuster, which delayed action on budget bills.

"In 17 years in this institution I've never seen such a flagrant abuse of the process," Rep. Hortman

"14 hours Thursday, 14 hours Friday and 13 hours Saturday. I think it's disrespectful to staff, disrespectful to members and disrespectful to the institution."

Hortman said many of the things the House GOP contingent are insisting on are already being fought for by Senate Republicans in negotiations with House Democrats and Gov. Walz.

House Republicans say they're trying to save the individual insurance market with subsidies for insurance carriers, intended to help control how quickly health insurance premiums can rise. Insurance companies say that "reinsurance" money has allowed them to avoid huge premium spikes in the cost of private plans. 

Democrats have been skeptical, saying there's no way to prove how the money the insurers get from the reinsurance program is being spent. The current reinsurance funding runs through 2022 and Republicans want to extend it beyond then.

Senate Republican Leader Paul Gazelka expressed optimism that lawmakers will cast aside the more divisive policy issues, buckle down and focus on passing the budget bills in the coming days. He said the Senate GOP has abandoned the demand that the Walz administration drop the new Clean Cars Minnesota emissions rules, set to go into effect for the 2025 model year.

RELATED: Walz sticking with new auto emissions rules

Originally, Senate Natural Resources Committee Chair Bill Ingebrigtsen of Alexandria said he'd hold up funding for the MPCA and DNR if Walz didn't pull the rule. But now Gazelka's Senate Majority Caucus has decided it would be best to fight that battle at the ballot box.

"That will not be implemented until 2024, which means this becomes an election issue as we look forward," Gazelka remarked.

The Republican leader also said lawmakers will take another swing at removing the governor's emergency powers before the special session ends. It's a battle that raged through the pandemic, as Walz and the House DFL Majority asserted those powers were needed to manage testing and vaccination and the flow of federal aid.

RELATED: Gov. Walz signs order to extend peacetime emergency

Refinery safety dispute

The Senate Finance Committee late Monday voted to strip the Refinery Safety Act from the jobs bill. On Friday 50 of the 67 senators voted in favor of adding the refinery safety provision, but Senate Majority Leader Gazelka and other Republicans said it was too rushed and more time is needed to clarify the language.

The amendment would require that people who work in oil refineries go through the types of apprenticeships and training that the trade unions currently require before placing workers in refineries. If a refinery owner chooses against using union labor the company would have to create its own apprenticeship program.

Gazelka said he understood that many Republicans voted for the refinery amendment, but he said it's not the Senate's place to come between refineries and their labor unions.

Roughly 200 members of Teamsters 120 were locked out out of Marathon's refinery in St. Paul Park Jan. 21.  According to the union its members' gate passes were deactivated and they were told they'd be arrested for trespassing if they tried to enter the plan.

As of April 29 the company informed the workers they could return to the refinery under terms of Marathon's new contract offer. The majority of union workers have been unwilling to return to their jobs without a negotiated, mutually acceptable contract.

The majority of Local 120's members voted Monday to reject what Marathon called its last offer.

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