Legislative session and special session marked by
giveaways to big businesses at the expense of everything else
The 2017 Legislative Session marked the first year of Republican-led majorities in the House and Senate. What began as a one-day special session stretched on for days and the final budget came together as a result of a narrow window when Republicans were missing legislators and required DFL votes to pass their bills. The Republican concessions required to close the special session are a reflection of just how different DFL and Republican values are. Republican budget offers made the wrong choices, putting the wealthy and corporations first, while DFL budget offers put working people first. Compromises had to be made by both sides to finally end the special session meaning neither the DFL nor Republicans got all of what they wanted.
The session began with a $1.65 billion surplus – the structural balance of the state budget was something that remained at the top of DFL Senators’ minds this session and throughout the days-long special session. Minnesotans expect their legislature to be accountable, accessible, and to complete their work on time, but these values have not been the hallmark of Republicans’ first session and special session in charge. In the days leading up to the end of the regular session, the work of the legislature ground to a halt as Governor Dayton attempted to negotiate budget deals with intransigent Republicans. A few smaller budget bills, including agriculture and economic development, were passed in the wee hours of Monday morning. As the hours ticked by, agreements on major budget bills – including more than 70% of the budget – remained unresolved. The lack of Republican compromise sent the legislature into a special session, costing taxpayers money for their inability to complete their work.
Despite January promises of accountability and that legislative work would take place in committees, Republicans met late in the evening with no public notice to sign finalized conference committee reports – abandoning all pretense of accountability and good-faith negotiations. Most of these conference committees had not taken public testimony and provided dead-of-night notice of early morning hearings for the next day.
The maneuver enraged the press and Republicans suffered extreme criticism by the public, DFL legislators, and Governor Dayton. The game-playing continued for the next week as House and Senate Republicans played to their base by passing bogus budget bills that were destined for vetoes. In fact, one set of budget bills passed by Senate Republicans received veto letters a mere two hours after passage. The whole charade wasted almost a week of precious time.
Governor Dayton and DFL legislators’ criticisms of the first set of budget bills were widespread. Not only did the bills include a total of 609 controversial policy provisions, but the first Republican budget bills would have set Minnesota on a path to budget deficits in as a little as four years.
Most budget areas received drastically low funding, which would have resulted in across-the-board budget cuts to schools, state parks, road and bridge funding, the state’s most vulnerable including children, elderly, and people with disabilities, and everything in between. These cuts were all made by Republicans in their quest to fund their $1.1 billion tax cut for big businesses, including tax cuts for the tobacco industry, the wealthiest Minnesotans, and the highly contentious neo-voucher program.
The significant and unnecessary cuts to budget areas are all the more insulting at a time when the state has a surplus. Teachers were especially well organized in their opposition to the education bill. The education budget came in at a paltry $300 million – less than half of Governor Dayton’s budget proposal. Handwritten letters from teachers and stories of layoff notices came pouring into offices.
Another key hallmark of the 2017 Legislative Session was discussion about providing health insurance premium relief to Minnesotans who purchase their health insurance on the individual market. In an attempt to stem the rate hikes, a premium relief bill spending $300 million was passed near the beginning of session. A second health insurance bill creating a “reinsurance pool” was passed during the middle of session. The bills were a $600 million handout to health insurance companies with absolutely no requirement that they make their rates more affordable or expand provider networks across the state. Additionally, the reinsurance program is just a two-year, temporary Band-Aid, that to maintain will require hundreds of millions of dollars after two years.