Our View: Easy solutions are evasive for divided Legislature
One in five Minnesota workers received unemployment benefits at some point during the pandemic, with payments totaling an eye-popping $15 billion. A lot of that money came from the federal government, and $1.3 billion has to be paid back.
Barring any action by the Legislature, that debt begins coming due April 30, with Minnesota employers having to pay roughly 30 percent more in unemployment taxes, even if they maintained full employment through the pandemic.
Nothing prompts action like a hard, punitive deadline. So, by the time this editorial shows upon on the Post Bulletin's website and in the weekend print edition, we expect the Legislature will have worked out something in the neighborhood of a $3 billion deal to erase the debt and replenish the unemployment fund, which started 2020 with a balance of nearly $1.7 billion.
If and when such an agreement is reached, we will applaud politely, but don't expect us to hand out plaudits and herald the deal as a triumph of bipartisanship.
The reality is that if in early January we had plucked five random Minnesotans off of any street in the state and asked them to solve this problem, the conversation would have gone something like this: “So, we have a $3 billion problem with the unemployment fund. It kept people fed and housed during the pandemic. The state is sitting on a $9 billion budget surplus. Replenish the fund and we still have $6 billion. Cool. Do we at least get lunch for doing this?”
It should have been exactly that easy. But this is Minnesota, the only state in the nation where voters regularly choose a divided government, with the House controlled by one party and the Senate controlled by the other.
While there are definite benefits to such political balance, it also invites unnecessary gridlock. Legislation that should be a slam-dunk regularly falls victim to partisan posturing, especially in an election year. Today's political environment often uses the primary system to punish elected officials who dare to reach across the aisle.
Bipartisanship used to be a badge of honor. Now it's a scarlet letter.
The same gridlock that's delayed action on the unemployment fund has also left Minnesota's frontline workers waiting for the hazard pay they earned. The June 2021 budget deal promised at least $250 million in so-called “hero pay” to those who couldn't ride out the pandemic from the relative safety of their homes. That total soared to as much as $1 billion as the state's budget surplus grew, but in the ensuing 10 months the House and Senate have failed to agree on who should receive this bonus, and how big those bonuses should be.
Again, this shouldn't be difficult. A middle ground somewhere in the neighborhood of $600 million sounds doable, and given that the amount of the bonus is likely to be in the neighborhood of a $1,500 one-time payment, we see no harm in casting a fairly wide net. That's not life-changing money, and it's not nearly enough compensation for anyone who contracted COVID while working at a hospital, nursing home or grocery store.
But at least it's something. Make a deal and write the checks. Now.
Frankly, we're getting close to a “plague on both your houses” situation with the Legislature. Despite an unprecedented opportunity to slash personal and business taxes while increasing spending on education, elder care and the environment, we see no signs of significant budgetary deals before the session's conclusion. Given that this is an election year, not a budget year, many of our elected leaders are focused on keeping their jobs, rather than doing them.
Will anyone step up and speak up?
Well, there's a group of 32 legislators who are uniquely positioned to do so. That's how many members of the House and Senate have announced their impending retirements.
We'll call them the lame-duck caucus, and chief among them is Rochester's own Sen. David Senjem, who last week announced that he won't seek re-election this fall after 20 years in the Legislature.
His will be large shoes to fill. He's held important leadership positions for the Republican Party and chaired several key committees, including the Capital Investment Committee. He also has pushed Minnesota toward a clean energy future and advocated for mental health crisis centers across the state.
While we didn't always agree with Senjem's positions, he could be counted on to balance the goals of his party with the needs of his district – and now he and 31 other legislators on both sides of the aisle have a big opportunity to burnish their legacies without fear of retribution from within their own parties.
Get something done, short-timers. Make deals with an eye toward a brighter future. Don't leave unused political capital on the table as you ride off into the sunset. Spend it now for a better Minnesota, because there's no guarantee that your successors will have ideas that are better than yours.