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All talk, no action when it comes to a special session in the Minnesota Legislature (and there’s not all that much talk either)

Our return to quasi-normalcy means when the fair kicks off, the politicians who flock to the fair grounds can talk about not having a special session.

Secretary of the Senate Cal Ludeman watching the testing of the new voting boards in an otherwise empty Minnesota Senate Chamber last week.
Secretary of the Senate Cal Ludeman watching the testing of the new voting boards in an otherwise empty Minnesota Senate Chamber last week.

The two top Minnesota events of the summer are soon to get underway, The Great Minnesota Get Together and The Great Minnesota Let’s Not Get Together.

The first is the Minnesota State Fair that kicked off Thursday in Falcon Heights. The other is the political parlor game that begins at adjournment of the regular session of the state Legislature and involves speculation of whether and when a special session will be convened.

The former has much better odds of happening than the later, which is true every year except during the pandemic when the fair was canceled and special sessions occurred every month. Our return to quasi-normalcy means when the fair kicks off, the politicians who flock to the grounds can talk about not having a special session.

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Why not? Six reasons.

  1. Both parties would rather talk about the issues of a special session than convene a special session.

When Gov. Tim Walz was touting his public safety department’s aid to Minneapolis he was asked what else could be done to boost policing in the state. Well, he said, the GOP could agree to a special session and approve his funding bill that would have sent $300 million to local governments for public safety. He then segued into a criticism of GOP nominee Scott Jensen who came out against the spending parts of the end-of-session deal signed by Miller.

In turn, it is hard to see how Republicans would want to approve rebate checks – dubbed Walz Checks by Walz and his administration – that would arrive in households statewide in the weeks before the election. For now it is perhaps a better talking point for Walz to say he wanted to send every family $2,000 but the GOP wouldn’t let him.  Jensen tried to call the governor’s bluff by suggesting a special session with only rebate checks on the agenda to see if Walz could even get DFL lawmakers to go along. Walz didn’t bite.

A confident GOP might have already decided that the worst that could happen in November is another two years of divided government and the best is that they control the House and Senate and even the governor’s office. So why compromise now with that potential in front of them?

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  1. They’re running out of excuses

Over the summer Walz has said he thought GOP incumbents didn’t want to pass the spending bills while there were still primaries to get past. Many conservative members of the House and Senate were facing even-more-conservative primary rivals. Walz theorized that once the primaries were over, the willingness to return to work would increase. There were lawmakers willing, if not eager, to approve tax cuts, spending on items such as schools and long-term care, a transportation funding bill that spent a few billion in federal infracture money and a bonding bill for public buildings, water and sewer projects and other ribbon-cutting fodder that elected officials love.

But the election results were certified more than a week ago and the House and Senate chambers remain quiet.

  1. Too many players

Walz has the constitutional authority to convene a special session of the Legislature. He doesn’t, however, have the constitutional authority to end such sessions once they are convened. That has given Walz and most of his predecessors pause when it comes to pulling that trigger.

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To assure himself that lawmakers will only take up what was agreed to, Walz has insisted on a written agreement. Again, that is not unusual. Legislative leaders too want to limit the time and scope of any summertime session whether it is election season or not. But to make any deal sustainable, it isn’t just the leaders of the two majority caucuses that have to sign on. Minority leaders suddenly have power, first over the types of rules suspension needed to make short sessions possible and then to provide the votes for bonding bills that require 60 percent majorities.

Walz could count on his DFL counterparts, less so on Senate Majority Leader Jeremy Miller or House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt.

  1. Not enough motivation

The first woman to serve as Majority Leader of the Washington state Senate, Jeannette Haynor, used to say the best way to win a negotiation is to not want anything. Hard to horse trade with someone who doesn’t need a horse. Miller signed an agreement in the closing days of the regular session to divvy up the estimated $12 billion available over the final year of this two-year budget period and the two-years of the next budget period. But the Winona Republican said that agreement died with the regular session. He met a few times with Walz and House Speaker Melissa Hortman in the following weeks but never indicated to them or publicly that the GOP really saw much to gain out of continuing to talk.

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Yes, there were items on the table that would have been fun for Republicans to campaign on – the elimination of state income taxes on Social Security payments for example. But it wasn’t enough for the GOP to give DFLers the spending items they wanted to campaign on.

Certainly advocates have been pushing for money for education, long-term care and more, and for tax changes for social security historic preservation and, now, student loan forgiveness. So far, that advocacy hasn’t moved Republicans.

  1. The money isn’t going anywhere

A combination of rosier-than-predicted tax collections and trillions of dollars of federal COVID spending (with those payments helping with those tax collections) produced record revenue surpluses. Spending it proved more difficult than cynics might have guessed. But the spending that was agreed to and signed by Walz satisfied the highest priorities of the GOP more than those of the DFL. Take the restoration of funds in the unemployment insurance trust fund that came at a cost much higher than the DFL preferred.

The DFL did get larger-than-first-negotiated Hero checks for frontline workers but not much else.

Whoever runs the place come January will have the entire $12.1 billion surplus to dispose of. And any risk that a recession would reduce tax collections and require that money to backfill the state treasury has not yet materialized. State tax collections since the end of the session have continued to outperform expectations and the surplus could well grow when the next official revenue forecast is released in December.

  1. History

Outside of the pandemic year 2020 when Walz emergency declarations triggered monthly sessions, and except for the extensions of regular sessions that are frequently needed to wrap up the budget, special sessions are rare.  

According to records kept by the Minnesota Legislative Reference Library, the last special session prior to the COVID marathon of monthly sessions that wasn’t a budget extension or for disaster relief came in 1997. The reason then was to pass the funding plan for the Twins baseball stadium.