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Details emerge from shadowy state budget negotiations; still no special session slated

Minnesota Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan and Gov. Tim Walz walk through the Capitol press room Monday, May 20, 2019. They talked to reporters on the final day of the regular legislative session. Don Davis / Forum News Service

ST. PAUL — Details of pieces of a $48 billion state spending plan slowly rolled out Wednesday, May, 22, after they'd been weighed and agreed to behind closed doors.

Lawmakers missed the deadline Monday, May 20, night to finish their work, and with just one of nine budgets approved by both the House and the Senate, they still have a lot of work yet to do.

Behind the scenes at the Capitol, Gov. Tim Walz, House Speaker Melissa Hortman and Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka have been holding "leader court" as it's known by legislators to green light or veto provisions in the spending bills for various areas of state government.

In an effort to allow more sunlight into the process of passing the bills, committee leaders held informational hearings Wednesday on some of the spending bills. And for the first time, additional details in the proposals came to light.

Here are some of the specifics that lawmakers are considering:

  • Public schools are expected to receive a per-student funding boost of 2% compared to current levels. The state will help offset the growing cost of special education and pay to fund 4,000 voluntary pre-kindergarten slots that were set to expire.
  • The state's second income tax bracket would be lowered to 6.8% under the proposal, which would provide tax relief to middle-class Minnesotans. The tax plan would also increase funding for city and county aid programs.
  • In the transportation spending plan, lawmakers allocated $275 million for road construction and maintenance, increased funding for Metro Mobility to expand services to Lakeville, replace the MNLARS software for a new program and spend $13 million to deputy registrars affected by the flawed MNLARS rollout.
  • Under the agriculture finance bill, funding would be boosted to grow farm and rural mental health resources, provide up to $5 million in assistance and relief grants to dairy farmers and puts forward one-time funds for an industrial hemp pilot program. The bill came up for a vote Monday night and passed in the Senate, but was tabled in the House.
  • The public safety spending plan would increase staffing levels for corrections officers, overhaul the state's sexual assault statutes, change the state's solitary confinement protocols in prisons and allow for the creation of a Task Force on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women.
  • The environment and natural resources budget bill would increase funding to combat chronic wasting disease in deer, including a $1.6 million appropriation to the University of Minnesota to help scientists develop a test for the fatal prion disease. Current tests can only detect the disease after an animal dies. The bill would also require cervid farmers to set up double gates and would require that a herd be destroyed if the disease is detected.

While lawmakers welcomed many of the provisions in the spending plans, they vented their frustrations about how the budget bills were written and flaws in the legislative process that allow a lack of transparency to persist.

“We have had failure after failure after failure," Rep. Gene Pelowski, DFL-Winona, said Wednesday morning. "And when attempts are made to reform this process, nobody is interested at the beginning of session and everybody is interested at the end of session.”

Minnesota lawmakers are expected to return to the Capitol this week to finish the work of writing a two-year spending plan. They'll have to approve the bills before they become law.