Capitol Watch: Strong finish for conservatives

The 2024 Minnesota legislative session came crashing to a close Sunday night at midnight with Republicans in both the House and Senate shouting into their microphones as Democrats shut down debate and rammed through a massive 2,860-page spending and policy bill. To understand how a party with complete control of government could fall apart so spectacularly at the end, you have to go back to 4:45 am on April 22, when DFL Senator Nicole Mitchell was arrested for felony burglary in Detroit Lakes. Her arrest, and more importantly, the Democrats’ decision to allow her to keep voting while awaiting trial, set the tone for end-of-session negotiations and cooperation. All trust was gone.

For two straight sessions, Democrats in the so-called “trifecta” ignored Republican legislators and the people they represented. Last year they went off the cliff, spending the entire surplus, raising taxes, granting rights and privileges to illegal aliens, and making Minnesota a sanctuary state for those seeking abortion on demand and gender surgery. They hoped to build on that record in 2024 with a billion-dollar borrowing bill and an equal rights amendment expanded to include gender and abortion. For most of the session, it appeared they were on track to add to their impressive list of legislative victories. It was all derailed by Senate Democrats’ blatant power move allowing Sen. Mitchell to continue voting.

Fateh holds Senate hostage over Uber drivers

After Sen. Mitchell’s arrest, the second biggest cause of the session meltdown was the Uber/Lyft legislation. Sen. Omar Fateh of Minneapolis refused to come out of his Capitol office to vote on Saturday until everyone capitulated to his demands on behalf of Uber and Lyft drivers. The Senate was in recess for most of the day Saturday while a steady stream of negotiators came and went from Fateh’s office crafting a bill that met his approval. He was able to hold the entire legislature hostage until he got what he wanted because of the narrow 34-33 vote margin in the Senate.

The bill he negotiated is outrageous, even for the DFL. First, it solves a problem wholly created by the DFL in the first place. Up until last year, Uber and Lyft were operating in Minnesota just like every other state, giving suburbanites rides to the airport and helping people who can’t drive get to work. But then Sen. Fateh introduced and passed a bill setting minimum pay levels for rideshare drivers. Every Democrat in the House and Senate voted for it but Gov. Walz recognized how bad it would look if his party kicked Uber and Lyft out of the state on his watch, so he vetoed the bill. It was the first veto of his term as governor.

After the Minneapolis City Council passed an ordinance setting minimum pay for drivers, Uber and Lyft announced they were leaving the state, reviving the political problem for Walz and the legislature. The final bill seeks to micromanage worldwide rideshare companies, forcing them to create a completely new system in order to operate in Minnesota. The bill:

  • Sets a minimum pay level of $1.28 per hour for rideshare drivers in the state along with a minimum mileage rate of .31 per mile.
  • Prescribes in great detail the type and level of insurance provided to drivers by rideshare companies.
  • Sets up a complicated process for companies to terminate relationships with drivers.
  • Requires riders to fund a non-profit Driver Advocacy Organization that will assist drivers with unfair deactivations. They crafted the legislation so that only one non-profit fits the definition for Driver Advocacy Organization, the Minnesota Uber/Lyft Drivers Association.

All of these detailed restrictions on rideshare companies essentially create a defacto union using state statute. Uber and Lyft “agreed” to the legislation and promised to stay in the state, but the next ride to the airport is going to cost Minnesotans almost 30% more than it used to, and will probably be the most expensive ride in the country. Congratulations, Democrats! Another backdoor tax increase.

Where was Walz?

Gov. Walz was completely absent from the end-of-session negotiations. Perhaps he was busy making speeches around the country as head of the Democratic Governors Association. His X account was full of posts about the Timberwolves and Donald Trump. The only appearance he made was at the press conference announcing the Uber/Lyft deal. In a throwback to last year’s selfie session, Walz and the DFL leadership hurt their arms patting themselves on the back for not completely chasing Uber and Lyft out of the state. Such joy for solving an issue they created. A strong governor would have called leaders into his office (Republican and Democratic) to hammer out a deal on the bonding bill. Especially since that was his number one priority coming into session.

Grand Theft Omnibus 

Since the rideshare bill wasted an entire day during the last week of session, Democrats ran out of time and had to cram 10 different bills into the tax bill at the last minute, creating what Rep. Mary Franson called the “Grand Theft Omnibus” bill. The new bill runs 2,860 pages and is ripe for a legal challenge to the one-subject rule in the Minnesota Constitution. The bill came up in the House and Senate before any copies could be made available online or on the floor. Speaker Hortman brushed aside criticism of the process by claiming all of the pieces were familiar to legislators and had ample debate. But that explanation required trust, something the DFL had not earned in 2023-24. The Democrats passed the bill over the shouts of Republicans during the last 30 minutes of session.

Dems accuse Republicans of obstruction

Democrats held a post-session press conference and desperately tried to blame Republicans for the breakdown of session. “The bonding bill came to us late,” said Senate Majority Leader Erin Murphy. Came to us from whom? You are in charge of the schedule. You are in charge of the conference committees. The session began on February 12! If you listen to Murphy and Speaker of the House Melissa Hortman, this was the first time minority legislators successfully filibustered the end of a session. These Republicans must be the greatest legislators of their generation!

My first session was in 1995 and I can attest this happens every single year. When you run the legislature, you have to plan for delays at the end of session. You have to schedule several hours of floor time for each of the big pieces of legislation. Sometimes you negotiate voluntary time limits with the minority party. But you can’t wait until the last two days and you can’t take the penultimate day off. Speaker Hortman called the Republican effort this year extraordinary and out of proportion. Hogwash. If anything, it was ordinary and predictable.

Republicans stayed strong

How many times have conservatives in Minnesota been disappointed with Republicans in the legislature at the end of a session? This year, Republicans held together and held firm and several bad bills failed to pass. They took advantage of the Nicole Mitchell situation to play a much stronger hand in back-room negotiations.

The biggest victory was keeping the ERA amendment off the ballot in 2026. This was a blatant attempt by Gov. Walz to put abortion on the ballot for his next election. Every time abortion has been on the ballot during an election since the Dobbs decision, it has benefitted Democrats. Rumor has it that Republican leadership told the DFL if they put the amendment on the ballot, there would be no GOP support for bonding or anything else. That’s a very difficult stance to take considering the pressure from within the caucuses to pass a bonding bill and bring home the pork. That strength and unity plus their work slowing everything down with speeches and amendments contributed to the breakdown at the end of session.

For once, some hope for conservatives.

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