Moments after members of the Minnesota House of Representatives had finished their session, complete with a few shouts and more than a few grimaces, workers started rolling chairs out of the chamber in preparation for the continuation of the massive Capitol restoration project.
It’s tempting to suggest that watching those workers was a refreshing change from what had happened over the previous four months in that chamber. Unlike the legislators, these workers were actually accomplishing something.
That’s probably not fair to Minnesota’s 134 House members and 67 senators. They actually did work pretty hard. They just didn’t make anything happen that will be worthy of more than a sentence in the state’s history. “Great things didn’t come out of the session,” is how Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, described the session. “But there probably were no great disasters, either.”
Yes, this is a session that will quickly be forgotten. But then, most legislative sessions are quickly forgotten. The state seems to move along pretty well, anyway.
Dayton has power to dictate what a special session will look like
On the whole, Republicans appeared to be a bit more slump-shouldered leaving St. Paul than DFLers. In part, that’s because DFLers are hopeful that when Gov. Mark Dayton vetoes the K-12 education bill (as he’s said he will) and perhaps when he vetoes a few other bills (as he’s implied he might), they will be able to achieve some of their goals in a special session.
Special sessions put even more power in the governor’s hands. Though House Speaker Kurt Daudt and Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk will have a say, it’s Dayton who will have the most muscle in dictating what a special session will look like.
Some DFL lawmakers even see a way that Dayton could pump some money into roads and bridges. About half the $2 billion surplus legislators had to work with remains unspent, after all, and Rep. Tim Mahoney, for one, envisions Dayton, in setting a special session agenda, using a pile of that money — say $600 million — for roads and bridges in a concentrated area of the state. Mahoney can’t imagine Republicans turning down using cash for necessary projects.
For DFL, no action is good action?
But the biggest win for DFLers may be this: Nothing happened with a tax bill. That means Republicans not only did not get the big tax cuts they wanted for business, but new taxes enacted during the 2013 session remain in place. Given that the economy still appears to be humming, surpluses would seem likely to keep piling up.
Republicans did stop any effort by DFLers to get a gasoline tax increase to support highway and bridge funding. Depending on your point of view, it was either humorous or pathetic in the way GOP House members managed to sneak the words “gas tax” in debates of all topics. When the members were debating the various points of the government finance bill, a couple of House Republicans managed to get “the DFL’s gas tax” into the debate. Same with the education bill. Same with just about all discussions on all issues: gas tax, gas tax, gas tax.
When Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, introduced a bill outlining the distribution of the state’s legacy funding in final moments of the session, he said “there is no gas tax in this bill.” DFLers laughed with appreciation at the comment.
Ah, but poor Urdahl. He is one of the most respected members of the House, but he became proof again that hard work and civility aren’t always rewarded. Urdahl’s bill, which he admitted was not perfect, died — the victim of either leadership bungling or by DFL design as the clock struck midnight. It had passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in the House, but the passage came only a few moments before midnight, and it needed to also be passed in the Senate, which had been bogged down by Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, coming up with a pile of amendments to a jobs bill. Time ran out and the bill became another symbol of the session that accomplished very little.
Just as House Republicans used every opportunity to remind everyone that they’d blocked the gasoline tax, House DFLers reminded their Republican colleagues that they were now paying for the Senate office building that’s going up across the street from the Capitol.
DFLers believe they lost their majority in the House last fall because of how the GOP used the “palatial office building” in their campaigns against DFLers. But now that they were in the majority, Republicans had to pass about $12 million for Senate building costs in a state government finance bill Monday night.
DFL Reps. Erin Murphy, Dan Schoen, and Ryan Winkler were among those taking turns baiting Republican leaders about how they were now in charge of paying the bills for what Winkler called “The Peppin Palace,” a reference to House Majority Leader Joyce Peppin.
When Peppin finally took the bait, she suggested that the DFLers were merely trying to run out the clock. “It’s about 10 o’clock,” Peppin snapped at Winkler. “We have two bills to do. We can play these little games later.”
Winkler’s response: “You’re already free-falling to the concrete and headed to a special session,” he said. “We have no reason to filibuster your failures.”
The big failure: transportation
Most of the finger-pointing at the close of this session wasn’t quite so brash as Winkler’s. In fact, most of it was predictable. We were told that DFLers botched the session. That Republicans botched the session. We’ve heard it all before. We’ll hear it all again.
Yet it was Republicans who seemed to be a little more downcast. Rep. Matt Dean, R-Dellwood, is usually an affable, often insightful person to turn to. But as the session ended, Dean simply looked exhausted. “I’m just tired,” Dean said. “I just want to go home and go to bed.”
Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, was a little more upbeat than Dean, but was hardly euphoric in a post-midnight conversation. The big failure was to come up with a big plan for transportation, she said. Republicans, DFL legislators and the governor all had declared that this would be the “transportation session.” But nobody managed to budge from positions that had been staked out even before the session began.
“I would say there’s a lot of mixed feelings,” she said. “There were things that were accomplished, but what I will remember most are the missed opportunities. It was a little disheartening to watch the time just tick away.”