While a hearing remains unscheduled at this hour, the Public Safety/Judiciary conference committee’s House co-chair said today that “good talks” are under way with his Senate counterpart, Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove.
“Good talks thus far with the Senator,” said Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, via a brief text-message exchange. “[We are] exchanging ideas.”
Earlier today, it appeared negotiations were stuck well as a 5 p.m. leader-imposed deadline for conference committee reports was fast approaching.
However, while 5 p.m. is a serious goal it is not a hard deadline, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, indicated after a Monday press conference.
A special session is built into Sunday’s budget deal, he said, so conference reports could be passed out of committee as late midnight without causing undue disruption.
“That’s why we’re not worried,” Gazelka said. “What we really want to do is just close up the bills.”
For his part, Mariani says he hopes he can forge an agreement with Limmer by midnight tonight. “[That’s] our intent!” he said via text.
Not much accomplished
The conference committee’s hearings up to now have largely been marked by good humor and collegiality—yet very little has gotten done.
Unlike some other conference committees that have forged policy agreements while waiting for final budget targets to arrive, Public Safety/Judiciary has moved just one major item. It voted to reject two DFL priority gun bills from inclusion in the final conference report on May 14.
On Saturday, the committee held a three-hour hearing during which Mariani invited several testifiers—Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell and Chief Public Defender Bill Ward among them—back for a second chance to pitch their causes.
At the hearing’s close, Mariani said the House side of the committee was ready to put proposals on the table. He noted that other committees had already succeeded in doing that, even without final budget numbers. “I don’t see why we can’t do that as well,” he said.
But Limmer questioned Mariani’s choice of convening the meeting simply to re-hear previous testimony. Senate conferees were well aware of proponents’ positions on House spending and policy measures from previous hearings, Limmer said.
He said he had tried to make it clear on day one that, without budget targets, there was not much point in discussing the omnibus, and he had avoided convening hearings on days when he held the gavel. Until 6:30 p.m. Sunday, no such budget target existed.
“I’m a little perplexed right now,” Limmer said at the Saturday hearing’s close.
On Sunday, the governor and legislative leaders finally announced a roughly $48 billion budget to keep state government running for the next two years.
Among its many features, the budget hands $125 million to the public safety conference committee in above-base funding. That’s $101.3 million less than Gov. Tim Walz had proposed for the division and $107.5 million less than the House’s original offer. But it’s $99.7 million more than the Senate’s original $25 million offer.
Speaking to a small group of reporters Monday, Walz said he had confidence all along that he and House Speaker Melissa Hortman could convince Gazelka to increase the Senate’s original $25 million spending offer for the division. It was an offer about which even Limmer had publicly expressed doubts, Walz noted.
“That was not only reckless,” he said. “We are certain it was unconstitutional in what would have happened. There were numerous problems.”
He said the $125 million compromise likely will fund several priority areas—including new corrections officers, public defenders and guardians ad litem—that both the House and Senate leaders agreed during negotiations were needed.
Perhaps less likely, Walz said, is that it will fully fund two new judgeships or pay raises for judges and judicial staff—at least at the level the courts requested. The governor was seeking 3% per year raises for the entire judiciary. The House wanted 4% for District Court judges.
“It will be tough,” Walz said. “We’ll see.”
The governor also wanted $612,000 for the biennium to sustain five existing treatment courts, which up to now have relied on federal funds. Walz said those are a personal priority and he plans to “dive in” to make sure they get funded.
Despite Mariani’s apparent optimism, whatever is blocking the way for Limmer and Mariani to reach an accord does not yet appear to have moved out of the way at this hour.
“We are having some back-and-forth discussion about the budget,” Limmer said in a brief interview on the Senate floor Monday morning. Those discussions, which Limmer said started late Sunday, went into the early morning hours and continued Monday.
He did not know whether the committee would reconvene before leadership’s 5 p.m. deadline for conference reports. “Nothing is going to proceed until we get our budget nailed down between both chairs,” Limmer said.
Sen. Ron Latz, the DFL’s Senate conferee, said it is not that unusual for conference committee chairs to reach a sticking point as the final hours tick away. Nor is it strange for chairs to hold negotiations in private.
“It would be better to do it by making public exchanges,” said Latz, himself a former Senate Judiciary committee chair. “It’s harder to get things done that way. It’s better if you can, but it also takes longer.”
As the lone DFL senator on the committee, Latz said he is not privy to negotiations.
If the sides cannot agree by the time the 2019 session adjourns at midnight, it might be necessary to reconvene a working group in place of the existing conference committee, Latz said. If that turns happens, a conference committee report would no longer be on the table.
Instead, one or more bills reflecting areas of agreement would be considered and placed before the Legislature for approval before the special session adjourns.