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'It’s obvious we’ve got a ways to go': Legislative leaders miss deadline after days of negotiations

It's a typical scene for this time of year: The Minnesota Capitol press corps grilling a legislative leader coming out of budget negotiations. In this case, reporters are asking questions of Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka on Monday, May 6, 2019, right after he left a meeting with other key lawmakers and Gov. Tim Walz. Don Davis / Forum News Service1 / 3
Minnesota Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka answers a reporter's question about budget talks on Monday, May 6, 2019. With him is Senate Finance Chairwoman Julie Rosen. Don Davis / Forum News Service2 / 3
Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz says budget negotiations were civil on Monday, May 6, 2019, after they broke for a few hours at midday. Don Davis / Forum News Service3 / 3

ST. PAUL — Seeing laws being written often is compared to watching sausage being made, but the 2019 Minnesota Legislature may look more like making applesauce.

“It is a little bit like apples to boulders,” Democratic Gov. Tim Walz told reporters Monday, May 6, on talks to produce a two-year budget that could nudge $50 billion, comparing Democratic and Republican budget plans. He did not say it, but when boulders and apples get together, applesauce is a likely product.

His point was that the Republican-run Senate has far different ideas than he and his fellow Democrats who control the House.

Walz and Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, in separate conversations with reporters Monday afternoon agreed that the parties come from opposite corners.

Walz explained the difference: Democrats look at what state government needs, and then prepare a budget to fit; Republicans start with no new revenue.

Gazelka said Democrats would raise taxes to fund their wants, while Republicans look at “what is important for Minnesota” and “build a budget on the resources that we have.”

The differing philosophies are the biggest roadblock to overcome by the time the state Constitution requires lawmakers to end their annual session on May 20.

The House and Senate have passed separate budget bills, in some cases widely different, for various parts of state government. They have vastly different budget plans for key spending areas, such as health-human services and education.

And months after setting a Monday deadline for themselves to decide how much each area of state government would receive in the two-year budget that begins July 1, Walz, House Speaker Melissa Hortman and Gazelka abruptly called off their talks Monday around 10:30 p.m.

Walz announced around 9:15 p.m. that he'd offered up a deal to drop $200 million in proposed spending from his budget plan if they could agree to keep a 2% tax on medical providers and maintain his plan to fund road and bridge repairs, including the gas tax hike.

“We’re ready to negotiate. I continue to hear, ‘No, no, no, nothing will change, nothing will change,’” Walz said. “We’re serious about getting this done for the people of Minnesota while keeping that progressive budget in place.”

Hortman said House Democrats returned to budget negotiations around 10 p.m. with another offer. They proposed dropping $664 million from their spending plan in exchange for the Senate boosting its general fund target by $332 million.

Senate Republicans in the negotiation countered with a 12% spending boost to E-12 education compared to what they'd originally proposed. And any spending to the Department of Human Services determined to be in excess after implementing fraud-prevention measures would also go toward E-12 education, they said.

But Republicans said they wanted to let the provider tax lapse and keep the gas tax at the current level. Walz and Democrats have proposed phasing in a 20-cent-per-gallon gasoline tax to pay for road and bridge repairs.

The discussions ended for the night around 10:30 p.m. when House Democrats left the negotiating room at the Capitol.

"The Senate has put nothing on the table, so we're done tonight," Hortman told reporters.

Budget negotiations were set to continue Tuesday, May 7, Hortman, Gazelka and Walz said.

"We're not in agreement. We had a logjam so we'll do our best to take care of it tomorrow," Gazelka said. Earlier in the day, Gazelka reiterated his stance that Senate Republicans would not support a tax hike on gasoline.

Asked about missing the self-imposed deadline, Walz said he was glad the talks were taking place with two weeks left in the legislative session, rather than at the last minute.

“It’s obvious we’ve got a ways to go,” Walz said.

Budget conference committees started meeting Monday but were limited to discussing what each chamber has included in its bill. There is relatively little compromise they can do on the budget until they receive overall spending targets from Gazelka, Hortman and Walz.

Forum News Service reporter Don Davis contributed to this report.