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Amid uncertainty, Legislature convenes special session

The one-day session has begun, despite indications that the passage of the agriculture and environment bill remains in question.  

The Minnesota House will meet in Room 10 of the State of Building
The Minnesota House will meet in Room 10 of the State of Building for Friday’s special session.

It’s happening: DFL Gov. Mark Dayton and all four caucus leaders signed an agreement late Thursday evening to set the parameters for a one-day special session to start 10 a.m. Friday, but one piece of the deal could still fall apart.

The passage of the agriculture and environment bill is in question in the state Senate, where DFLers are upset with several provisions in the final package, including one that nixes a nearly 50-year-old citizens board of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, and another that transfers landfill cleanup money to the state’s general fund.

In their four-hour private caucus meeting Thursday, Senate Democrats went through the bill line-by-line, while staff shuttled around the budget agreement between caucuses to get final signatures from leaders.

When it was over, Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk emerged unsure if his members will put up enough votes Friday to send the bill on its way to Dayton’s desk. He said he will need Senate Republicans to help pass the bill, much like they did on the final night of session. Failure to do so would reopen negotiations with House Republicans and Dayton, triggering another special session, Bakk said.

“That was the hardest bill to pass on the last day [of session] and it will be the hardest bill to pass tomorrow,” Bakk said. “I don’t know if there will be 34 votes for it.” 

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Tentative budget deals that quickly unravel has been the theme of Minnesota politics for weeks. On the final weekend of regular session, an alliance between Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt and Bakk produced a budget deal that could pass a divided Legislature, but the agreement didn’t get the full backing of Dayton, who vetoed the education, jobs and agriculture and environment budgets shortly after session concluded. 

But Thursday, it was Dayton urging legislators to vote yes. He privately lobbied House and Senate DFLers in caucus Thursday to support the tentative agreement. Earlier Thursday, Dayton — facing a potential partial shutdown of state government — said the situation has changed. Layoff notices have already gone out to nearly 10,000 state workers who will be out of a job on July 1 without a deal on the three outstanding budget bills. Dayton, who went through a 21-day partial government shutdown in 2011 over a budget impasse, urged legislators to not let that happen again.

“I went through this once before, I saw how disruptive it was. I saw how long it took us to really recover and really restore — in fact and perception — that Minnesota government functioned responsibly,” Dayton said Thursday morning. “I will do everything in my power to see that that doesn’t happen again.”

“The game’s over,” Dayton added. “You can prepare for the next game, but at some point it’s got to end. I’m not saying people should like it, but to come in and say now we are going to disrupt the whole process. We are going to shut down state government until we get a bill we want? We won’t get a bill that some of these groups want.”

But Bakk said Dayton’s meeting with legislators didn’t seem to sway any votes. Many members already have their minds made up, he said.

Passage of all the budget bills — plus a $373 million package of construction projects and a Legacy funding bill — seems more certain in the House, where Daudt and DFL Minority Leader Paul Thissen were the first leaders to sign on to the budget agreement. “Folks are ready to come in and get these bills passed,” Daudt said after signing the agreement.

Other breakthroughs in special session negotiations have quickly exposed other weak spots in the final deal. First, Dayton and House Republicans agreed to spend $525 million more on education over the next two years, but then a provision to privatize county government audits — currently done by the state auditor’s office — became a sticking point. When Dayton offered to drop his opposition to that change, he noted that there were still some differences remaining in the jobs bill. Those differences were worked out in the final deal, but the agriculture and environment bill is now standing in the way of a smooth special session.

The budget agreement reached by leaders will allow lawmakers to offer amendments to bills on Friday, but none will be supported by leadership.

Complicating things further: The usual House and Senate chambers in the Capitol are closed due to a major restoration project, so the Legislature will cram into theater-style seats in two hearing rooms in the state office building down the road from the Capitol. Seating will be limited for the public during the one-day session, and without voting boards, lawmakers will take roll-call votes on budget bills.