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Why the notion of holding a special session in Minnesota has become so much less special

How a once-limited manner for the Legislature to address specific issues has become the go-to move for seemingly every problem in the state, from walleye populations to racial inequalities.

Over the last decade, governors have called lawmakers back after the regular session nearly every year.
Photo by Tom Olmscheid/Workingpr

Count them up: unemployment benefits for out-of-work miners; the permitting process for a major pipeline and mining project; complying with federal driver’s license requirements; the handling of Syrian refugees; Minnesota’s persistent and widening racial inequalities.

All of these issues — and possibly more — are all on the table for a potential one-day special session of the Legislature.

Special sessions aren’t all that uncommon in Minnesota: Over the last decade, governors have called lawmakers back after the regular session nearly every year. Most of those, however, were called to finish the state’s budget or provide relief in the event of a natural disaster, like flooding. It’s different when it comes to special sessions not related to the budget or a natural disaster. One of those hasn’t happened since 1998. 

“This year it’s kind of all over the board,” said Gregg Peppin, a GOP operative and former House staffer who is also married to House Majority Leader Joyce Peppin. “Someone says here’s a problem, so let’s have a special session. Here’s another problem, so let’s have a special session. There’s no overriding focus, it’s government by crisis management. We’ve had plenty of special sessions over the years, but this feels different.”

A long break, an eager governor

So what’s so different about this year?

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Part of the uptick in special session talks can be attributed to the unusually late 2016 session start date: March 8. Session usually starts as early as January, but a messy restoration project is taking over the Capitol building for most of the year. That leaves more time for issues to crop up ahead of session.

But DFL Gov. Mark Dayton is also a major driving force behind the special session talks, arguing there are other urgent needs the state needs to address — soon. In July, he asked lawmakers to agree to a special session to aid ailing resorts and businesses on Mille Lacs Lake, where there’s a walleye shortage this fishing season. In September, he asked legislators to consider coming back to face a looming deadline to comply with the federal REAL ID Act, which threatens Minnesotans’ ability to use their driver’s license to board an airplane. Most recently, he asked legislators to convene and extend unemployment benefits to out-of-work steelworkers on the Iron Range.

“The layoffs and subsequent benefit exhaustion are having a crippling effect through Iron Range communities,” Dayton wrote in a letter to Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt. “Not only are the mineworkers and their families struggling to determine how to survive in the face of an uncertain future. The many industries that support the iron ore mines are struggling to retain their staffs and operations.”

Meanwhile, in the wake of the death and unrest over the police shooting of Jamar Clark in Minneapolis, DFL Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk also proposed a special session, this one to address the state’s acute and persistent racial disparities. A recent report from the U.S. Census Bureau showed median income for black Minnesotans fell by 14 percent between 2013 and 2014, while the black poverty rate rose from 30.5 percent to 34.7 percent during that same time. 

Dayton agreed with Bakk, and asked lawmakers to set aside $15 million in any special session for not-yet-outlined proposals that aim to help improve economic outcomes for black Minnesotans. “We cannot ignore these problems any longer,” he wrote in his letter.

Republicans put on the brakes 

Even still, no special session has been called since lawmakers went home in June (after a special session). 

This summer, the Republican-controlled House pushed back on Dayton’s idea to call lawmakers back to help resort owners on Mille Lacs Lake, arguing the proposal bails out a specific industry in a specific part of the state. Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt also says extending unemployment benefits for miners doesn’t solve the industry’s woes over the long term. Instead, he’s asked Dayton to get out of the way on the permitting process for two proposed projects: PolyMet’s proposed nonferrous NorthMet mine in Hoyt Lakes, as well as the Sandpiper oil pipeline, a controversial project that would span from North Dakota to Minnesota. Environmental groups have objected to both, saying they threaten Minnesota’s pristine lakes and streams. 

PolyMet’s proposal is under final review by the Department of Natural Resources now and could be permitted by early next year. In his letter, Dayton assured Daudt he’s not standing in the way of the project but promised his administration will not “impede or delay the environmental or financial reviews” of PolyMet. 

But the ballooning special session agenda has also complicated matters. While the governor has the authority to call lawmakers back into a special session, legislators decide when it’s finished, and a simple agenda can keep things from spiraling out of control. The longest special session in state history, in 1971, lasted four months, but that was because it dealt with the complicated “Minnesota Miracle” tax policy.

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A special session designed to finish up the state’s budget almost fell apart earlier this year when Senate Democrats, angry over a budget bill that eliminated a longstanding environmental oversight board, broke an agreement between leadership and tried to change the bill. After hours of debate and back-and-forth, the bill reverted to its original form, but some lawmakers thought the debate might last for several days. 

“Unless you want to open up a special session and go on for two or three weeks or a month and have extended committee hearings or discussions on the floor, it seems odd — just throwing out a large social problem and saying we need to do it in a special session,” Peppin said. “It really doesn’t help limit the agenda, which is what special sessions have always been about.”

A better way?

Some are questioning the current system.

Lawmakers have more than $1 billion sitting on the bottom line, but they can’t touch the money unless they convene and pass specific legislation. In 2013, lawmakers passed a bill to cut down on special sessions; it established an emergency fund managed by budget officials in case of a natural disaster, but it’s not set up for other uses.

Darin Broton, a longtime DFL activist and consultant, thinks lawmakers should set aside a two-week period every year after regular session for lawmakers to come back and take care of any new issues that pop up.

“We keep having these things bubble to the top or pop up when we are not in session, especially with this unusually long break,” Broton said. “This could create a space to deal with anything that comes up. If there’s nothing, legislative leaders can decide if they want to have one or not.”