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Minnesota Legislature takes little action on Saturday, sets up frenzied final day of session

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Minnesota Legislature takes little action on Saturday, sets up frenzied final day of session

May 18, 2024 | 6:43 pm ET
By Michelle Griffith
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Minnesota Legislature takes little action on Saturday, sets up frenzied final day of session
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Minnesota Capitol. Photo courtesy House Information Services.

The Minnesota Senate met for less than one hour as of Saturday afternoon despite having about 30 hours left to take up more than 20 bills, including legislation to fund infrastructure projects across the state, place an Equal Rights Amendment on the 2026 ballot and raise pay for Uber and Lyft drivers.

The Senate passed just one bill on Saturday morning — allocating $24 million in aid for emergency medical services statewide. The bill passed 66-0, with just one lawmaker missing: Sen. Omar Fateh, DFL-Minneapolis. 

Fateh is a key player in on-going negotiations over minimum pay rates and labor protections for Uber and Lyft drivers, and his absence on Saturday morning signaled his willingness to hold up the rest of his party’s agenda until a deal is reached. Democrats maintain just a one-seat majority in the Senate, meaning they need all their members present and voting to pass their agenda without Republican votes. 

Fateh didn’t respond to the Reformer’s question about why he didn’t vote on EMS funding. Despite being missing from the Senate floor, the Reformer spotted Fateh in the Senate Office Building on Saturday afternoon.

Inside the Capitol, about 25 Uber and Lyft drivers were chanting “Fair pay now!” outside the House and Senate chambers while lobbyists and the public milled about and a couple held a small wedding ceremony in the rotunda.

The Senate was scheduled to go back into session at 7 p.m. and will likely meet late into the evening.

While the Senate stood in recess from 10:15 a.m. on, the Minnesota House passed a slew of conference committee reports — or the final version of a bill — on Saturday including a cannabis policy bill and a judiciary and public safety bill.

The House didn’t take up the ERA bill again on Saturday after debating it for a few hours late on Friday, suggesting the success of that bill in its current form is not assured. The sweeping ERA bill, opposed by Republicans, would ask voters to amend the state constitution to codify abortion rights and protect Minnesotans from discrimination based on race, color, national origin, ancestry, disability, gender identity or sexual orientation.

Hortman said on Thursday the Senate had enough votes to pass the House’s ERA language, but Senate Majority Leader Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul, told reporters Friday that the Senate Democrats are waiting to see what version of the bill ends up passing off the House floor.

The fate of a major infrastructure package this year was still unknown on Saturday. The funding package requires Republican votes to pass with a supermajority because it will be funded with borrowed money. Infrastructure bills in past years have passed in the final hours of legislative sessions, so there’s still a possibility lawmakers may come to a deal.

Republicans have tried using their little bit of leverage they have with the the infrastructure bill to win major concessions including on the ERA amendment, which Democrats balked at.

“If Republicans are conditioning their support for a bonding bill on denying civil rights to trans Minnesotans, then we won’t have a bonding bill,” Hortman said during a Thursday press conference.

Senate Minority Leader Mark Johnson, R-East Grand Forks, in an interview said whether an infrastructure package passes this year will hinge on the ERA.

Lawmakers passed a $2.6 billion infrastructure package last year in addition to a two-year budget, so they don’t technically have to pass any legislation this year.

The Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities in a statement on Friday said it’s concerned lawmakers won’t pass an infrastructure bill and failure to do so “will leave a lot of local elected officials around the state wondering what the heck has the Legislature been doing for the past four months.”

Gov. Tim Walz told reporters on Friday afternoon that he believed the threats over an infrastructure package were “hyperbole” and that lawmakers regularly make these doomsday statements in the final hours.

A bill to legalize sports betting, which would give tribal nations exclusive rights to the gambling licenses, has run into roadblocks all session, though lawmakers are still attempting to come to an agreement. The House on Saturday introduced a bill to ban historic horse racing. The Minnesota Racing Commission last month approved the machines, which allow users to bet on races from the past, and Democrats have said what the commission did was illegal.

This year’s tax bill is also in limbo. House and Senate members haven’t met to hash out differences in the two chambers’ tax bills in days, and it’s unclear when they will meet again.

In one positive sign for a deal on Uber and Lyft regulations, Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee approved a bill that would appropriate $2 million to create a new 0% interest car loan program for Uber and Lyft drivers. The loans would be administered by non-profit organizations, which could take up to 10% in administrative fees.

But lawmakers remain hung up over the specific pay rates and whether the Legislature will preempt local governments from enacting their own pay rates. Democrats are leery of overriding local control of labor standards, but the Minneapolis City Council passed rates set to take effect on July 1 that will lead Lyft to pull out of the city and Uber to pull out of the Twin Cities metro.

Last week, legislative leaders and members of the Minneapolis City Council announced an agreement on minimum pay rates — $1.27 per mile and 49 cents per minute — but Uber and Lyft said they’ll leave the state if those rates are enacted, and Gov. Tim Walz said keeping those companies operational is essential to win his support.

If Democratic leaders can’t find a compromise among their own members, they could try to win over enough Republicans to pass a bill. But time for such a deal is running out and the lead Republican negotiator on Uber and Lyft — Rep. Pat Garofalo of Farmington — said Republicans haven’t been included in negotiations. 

Reformer reporter Max Nesterak contributed to this report.