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The 2020 session of the Minnesota Legislature begins next week. The bickering has already started.

What was supposed to be a meeting on Wednesday to consider responses to increased crime on Metro Transit’s light rail lines dissolved into an argument over who should be the chair of the joint commission that oversees the Met Council.

State Sen. Eric Pratt and state Rep. Jon Koznick shown at the beginning of Wednesday's hearing.
State Sen. Eric Pratt and state Rep. Jon Koznick shown at the beginning of Wednesday's hearing.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

The first partisan fight of the Minnesota Legislature’s 2020 session occurred at … the Legislative Commission on Metropolitan Government?

Inexplicably perhaps, but yes.

What was to have been a meeting on Wednesday to consider different responses to increased crime on Metro Transit’s light rail lines quickly dissolved into an argument over who should be the chair of the joint commission that oversees the Met Council.

Shortly after  the current chair, GOP Rep. Jon Koznick, began the hearing, DFL Sen. Scott Dibble of Minneapolis made a motion to reconsider a decision made two months ago. That led to, in sequence: a call for a recess and the departure of the chair and vice chair; an exchange of accusations of partisan mischief; a duel over what Mason’s Manual of Legislative Procedure would say about whether the motion to recess should have been voted on and who could be chair once the chair and vice chair had departed.

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When all that couldn’t be resolved, the remaining commission members retired to their cell phones. No one was sure how to proceed — or even whether they could adjourn. 

Might they have to remain in legislative limbo forever? 

The 2020 session of the Minnesota Legislature — with Republicans controlling the state Senate and DFLers in control of the House — doesn’t even begin until Tuesday.

So how did an often obscure legislative commission become the flashpoint for divided government? 

Two months ago, the same commission met to elect its chair and vice chair. Since there are seven House members and seven Senate members — and because those bodies are controlled by the DFL and the GOP respectively — both parties have the same number of votes. By tradition and custom, the chair rotates from someone from the majority party in the Senate to someone in the majority in the House. That meant that Sen. Eric Pratt, a Republican from Prior Lake, would be handing the gavel to Rep. Sandra Masin, a DFLer from Eagan.

But a bunch of DFL members didn’t show up, like four of seven. So contrary to all that tradition and custom, Rep. Linda Runbeck, a Republican from Circle Pines, nominated fellow House Republican Rep. Jon Koznick from Lakeville. He won, despite Pratt’s abstention.

Ever since that Dec 10 meeting, the DFL has been laying in wait to make things right, at least from their perspective. On Wednesday, seeing that this time DFLers had the most members in attendance, Dibble pounced.

“I’d like to interrupt this proceeding and make a motion,” Dibble said. 

Koznick ruled him out of order but Dibble persisted.

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“Mr. Chair I move that we hold new elections for chair of this commission,” he said.

Koznick said he wanted to move ahead with the hearing. He again ruled Dibble out of order. Dibble then moved to challenge that ruling.

Koznick responded: “Here we are in a public forum and you want to bring more partisanship into this. I would move for a recess.” 

With that, he banged his gavel and left the room — with the gavel. Vice Chair Pratt followed.

The empty chairs of Pratt and Koznick, following Koznick's call for a recess.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
The empty chairs of Pratt and Koznick, following Koznick's call for a recess.
That was when Dibble assumed the chairmanship as the ranking member remaining in the hearing room. But then Sen. David Osmek, R-Mound, challenged his authority to do so. And then both began citing Mason’s Manual of Legislative Procedure, the rules of order used by the Minnesota Legislature.

At one point the argument revolved around whether Koznick had simply declared a recess or made a motion to recess. If it was the latter (which it was), it should have required a vote — which didn’t happen. 

So was the meeting really in recess? 

Osmek offered to “chase down” the missing chair and vice chair. The DFL members did not take him up on that offer. Instead, they and the remaining GOP members exchanged accusations of who was being more partisan and who was disrupting the bipartisan tradition of the commission.

“Sen. Dibble, I can read the minutes of the last meeting as well as you can and there were a whole lot of Democrats who were not here,” said Runbeck. 

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“That’s where honor and civility and custom and usage come into play,” Dibble said. “Someone can do something but doesn’t because they uphold a professional and courteous relationship. When you violate them, there are consequences.”

State Sen. Scott Dibble, left, assumed the chairmanship of the meeting as the ranking member remaining in the hearing room. But then Sen. David Osmek, right, challenged his authority to do so.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
State Sen. Scott Dibble, left, assumed the chairmanship of the meeting as the ranking member remaining in the hearing room. But then Sen. David Osmek, right, challenged his authority to do so.
Nearly an hour after he left, Koznick returned. The hearing on a rail safety measure took place, though in a shortened form. Then, just before the end of the meeting, Koznick announced that he was resigning the chairmanship. Pratt made a motion to elect DFLer Masin. The voice vote was unanimous. And the commission members were finally free to return to the real world.

Afterward, Koznick said he had been meeting with House Speaker Melissa Hortman as well as with Hornstein and Masin to broker a resolution and said it was going to be discussed Thursday. The intent was to give the gavel to Masin.

“The maneuver by Sen. Dibble was uncalled for,” he said. “It is an embarrassment on the Legislature but sometimes that’s the way it goes.”