ST. PAUL — In the end, everything at the Minnesota Capitol is a blend of pragmatism and politics.
And we’re near the end.
The Minnesota Legislature will end its 2021 legislative session May 17.
If Republicans in the state Senate, Democrats in the state House and Gov. Tim Walz, a Democrat, don’t agree on a two-year state budget, they’ll have go into a special session to avoid a state government shutdown starting July 1.
That spending plan — likely to be in the neighborhood of $50 billion — matters and is often described as a reflection of priorities. But so much more than dollars and cents go into how it turns out. Under St. Paul’s marble dome in May, that so much more is called politics.
Here are seven of those political forces:
Politics of numbers
When it comes to voting, numbers don’t lie. Practically speaking, the Minnesota Legislature is divided between the two parties — the only such legislature in the nation right now.
House (134 seats, DFL control): 70 DFLers hold the majority over 59 Republicans and five Republicans who caucus as “New House Republicans” but are generally not much of a factor. While House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, has had a tough time wrangling the liberal and moderate wings of her caucus, anything those two wings agree on is bulletproof in the House — as long as they have enough time for the procedural roadblocks the minority party always throws up.
Senate (67 seats, GOP control): 34 Republicans hold the majority, while the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party has 31 members. Additionally, two former DFLers have formed an independent caucus that hasn’t yet — but in theory could — create some power-brokering intrigue. Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, has managed to keep his 34 votes reliably unified, meaning Democrats must have him on board on anything they hope to become law.
Politics of ideology
Democrats believe government programs — and the taxes needed to fund them — are crucial to addressing many of society’s problems, while Republicans tend to vote the opposite, favoring smaller government, and abhorring taxes.
This generalization isn’t new, but it’s a time-honored dynamic that permeates much of the proposals floating around the Capitol, creating a fundamental divide that requires pragmatism over ideology if bills are to pass a divided Legislature.
Politics of polarization
That pragmatism has been increasingly hard to come by in recent years, as politics have gone tribal — to a fault.
Elected officials play so hard to their most fervent supporters that facts sometimes go out the window, creating acrimony.
Democrats have had a difficult time reconciling dissonant truths about police protests, such as the reality that while police have used heavy-handed tactics at times, some number of those demonstrating in the names of George Floyd and Daunte Wright have committed acts of violence against police and private property.
Meanwhile, numbers of Republicans who privately acknowledge that former President Donald Trump lost the election to Joe Biden refuse to state it publicly or challenge their colleagues who publicly spread false claims about the 2020 election, such as happened last week during a debate on the Senate floor, where Republicans passed a voter ID bill.
Measures such as the voter ID bill and some police changes pushed by Democrats have little chance of becoming law right now, but allow elected officials to posture for their bases.
Politics of elections
Many lawmakers from both parties are motivated to posture to their bases right now. They’ll all be on the ballot in November 2022, under newly drawn districts.
That’s still a ways away, but in the current political climate, many are worried about primary challenges from their ideological flanks.
Then there’s this: Walz is on the ballot, and the Republican field to challenge him is wide open. Two prominent state senators, Gazelka and Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, are said to be considering running. What comes out of this legislative session — or what they can prevent from happening — could form the foundation for their legislative accomplishments as they seek to build support among the Republican Party’s most faithful, who will play a crucial role in whether their campaigns have legs.
Politics of personality
Overcoming acrimony in the name of deal-making is the art of legislative politicking, and some “Minnesota Nice” never hurts. It hasn’t been easy during the coronavirus pandemic, as Minnesotans are much more civil speaking face-to-face than dueling over social media or even Zoom.
Walz, Hortman and Gazelka — the three most important players in this drama — have traditionally had cordial, if not friendly, relationships, but all three have acknowledged it’s been strained during the past year. However, all are now fully vaccinated and have begun to meet in person in the past week. Walz and Gazelka have both said it’s been a refreshing game-changer.
Politics of COVID
The distinctly American polarization of the pandemic promises to play a prominent role in the end of the session. Since soon after the early days of the virus reaching Minnesota, Republicans have consistently opposed nearly every restriction that Walz has enacted via emergency powers — and they’ve tended to especially despise masks.
Walz’s recent announcement of a phased rollback of restrictions, including the statewide mask mandate, might ease some of that — although initial reactions from Gazelka and other Republicans suggest not.
Pandemic-related policies have spillover effects that are in play right now at the Capitol.
For example, there’s general agreement that it’s time to begin winding down Walz’s prohibition on landlords evicting tenants for being behind on rent, an edict he issued via his emergency powers. But there’s no agreement on how to do that, although parties are discussing the matter.
Similarly, Gazelka wants lawmakers — not just Walz — to have a say in how some $2.6 billion in federal recovery funds will be spent, and it’s not clear whether Walz will agree.
Politics of POCI
The People of Color and Indigenous Caucus — a group of 22 DFL lawmakers — has emerged as a major force in the aftermath of the police killings of Floyd and Wright.
While the main priority of the POCI Caucus is changes to laws around policing and criminal justice, they also give voice to many of the most progressive priorities among all Democrats. In the Senate, they’re just part of the party out of power. But in the House, they have the ability — via numbers, as well as persuasion — to shift the party, or create discord, depending on whom you might ask.
How — and whether — Hortman can keep her caucus unified, and the role of the POCI Caucus, is a dynamic that could ultimately determine whether an agreement can be reached between Hortman, Walz and Gazelka.