Why the 2015 legislative session will quickly be forgotten

MinnPost photo by Briana Bierschbach
Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, desperately trying to pass his Legacy bill off the floor before adjournment.

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.”

Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 05/19/2015 - 10:49 am.

    Some ground rules

    “Dayton has power to dictate what a special session will look like”

    Now I am no expert on legislative procedure but here is my understanding, and I would welcome corrections from anyone who actually knows what they are talking about. Dayton’s power with respect to a special session derives from the fact that only he can call one. He can, therefore, place conditions on his decision to call the session. But legislative leaders are under no legal obligation to accept those conditions, and once in session, are under no legal obligation to comply with them. Once in session, Dayton can’t dictate anything. Legislators work for the people who elected them, not the governor, and not their legislative leaders.

    “For DFL, no action is good action?”

    Well, it’s complicated. I think the DFL lost the election for the house majority because we were perceived as neglecting Greater Minnesota. Will that be the issue next time around? And if so, what has this session done to remedy that perception? One observation I would offer is that the DFL is perceived as the party of government, and when the government messes up, however we might assign fault, it’s the DFL that gets the blame, particularly in this case where the DFL controls the senate and the governorship.

    “The big failure: transportation”

    Yes. Cynical me believes that while the Republicans want to buy stuff, they don’t want to pay for the stuff they want to buy, and that fundamental contradiction pretty much makes them incapable of governing when they are in power. How this will play out in the next election is anybody’s guess. That Republicans have pretty much stymied themselves isn’t an easy thing to explain in Greater Minnesota, particularly when the DFL has fewer incumbents than it did to explain it.

    • Submitted by Bill Conley on 05/19/2015 - 12:21 pm.

      “Dayton can’t dictate anything.”

      As with any session, special or not, no bill becomes law without his signature.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 05/19/2015 - 03:41 pm.

      “Dayton has power”

      Actually, not all that much.

      The Governor may call a special session, and must inform the Legislature of the purposes for which the special session is convened, but the legislation considered and the length of time for the session are determined by the Legislature. It is customary for the Governor to consult with the legislative leadership before calling a special session.

      And, of course, the Governor retains the power to veto legislation.

  2. Submitted by John Edwards on 05/19/2015 - 11:20 am.

    The inexact art of “high-quality journalism”

    MinnPost’s Brianna Bierschbach’s version today of Legislature’s last hours:
    (Republican) Daudt ‘proud’ of session, (DFLer) Bakk not so much.
    “Immediately after the shouting match on the House floor, Daudt seemed surprisingly upbeat about the session. . . But ultimately, Bakk said he was heading back to his Iron Range district unsatisfied.”

    MinnPost’s Doug Grow’s version today:
    “On the whole, Republicans appeared to be a bit more slump-shouldered leaving St. Paul than DFLers.”

  3. Submitted by Neal Gendler on 05/19/2015 - 12:32 pm.

    No Republicans allowed?

    I presume that when “the Peppin palace” opens, no Republican senators will be allowed in “the Democrats’ luxury office building.”

    After all, doesn’t something become what it’s called?

  4. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 05/19/2015 - 12:47 pm.

    Peppin

    The level of hypocrisy surrounding the Senate Office Building was pretty high. Republicans are just as eager to move in the new office space as the Democrats. I will admit I was pretty irritated with the whole thing last election season; nobody I have ever met works on a legislative campaign because they want their candidate to have a nicer office. But the fact is, in terms of the way it played in Greater Minnesota, the office building was more of a metaphor for DFL out of touchness than a substantive issue. If the building hadn’t been there, the Republicans would have just found something else. I think the real problem issue was gay marriage anyway.

    I tend to look at things from the DFL perspective, but with respect to the slump shoulderedness of Republicans, the problem they have is that they didn’t deliver much of anything. They didn’t get the transportation issue they wanted, they didn’t get the tax cuts their backers wanted, and the issues that did work for them last time, gay marriage, the office building are fading into the past.

  5. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 05/19/2015 - 01:37 pm.

    Dude

    Forgotten by whom? All legislative sessions are quickly forgotten. We’re lucky if people even remember the laws that get passed.

  6. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 05/19/2015 - 02:38 pm.

    Headlines

    I don’t know how things work here, but it’s the usually the case that headlines are not written by the reporters who write the actual stories. Often they contradict the underlying stories, but because headlines serve a different purpose, it’s something I usually don’t comment about. In this case, the headline promises to tell us why this session is going to be forgotten. I don’t think the article really does that but then I don’t think that was Doug’s intent.

    I was amused by the Republican appropriation for the office building. One thing they could have easily done was re-purpose the building for something other than senate offices. My suggestion was to turn it over to the University of Minnesota for classroom and lecture space. I am sure other uses could be found for it. But after all the noise about it during the last election season about how awful it all was, it turns out Republicans crave the office space too.

  7. Submitted by Tom Anderson on 05/20/2015 - 09:12 pm.

    Actually

    “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.”

    The citizens of Minnesota will be paying for the new Senate office building that can house almost all of the Senators.

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