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Five things we learned from the Minnesota Legislature’s special session

Chain link fences currently surround the Minnesota State Capitol.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Chain link fences currently surround the Minnesota State Capitol.

On Saturday, Minnesota legislators ended a nine-day special session with an exchange of offers and pleadings — but no resolutions. No deals were reached on legislation both parties said was necessary, including on reforming police accountability in Minnesota and to help rebuild neighborhoods damaged by arson and looting after the May 25 killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.

For now, it’s unclear when lawmakers will return to St. Paul. What’s also unclear, especially given the partisan differences exposed once again last week, is what lawmakers will be able to accomplish once they do return.

And yet there are things we do know — or think we know — about the special session that just ended, including:

1. There were actually two sessions. Neither was successful.

Before the session began on June 12, one take was that it was really two sessions being held at the same time. The first was for the Legislature to decide whether to rescind Gov. Tim Walz’s extension of the peacetime state of emergency called to respond to the coronavirus pandemic in Minnesota. Republicans were determined to end it, while DFLers were set on backing the governor. Both had to agree for it to end, so the DFL governor was bound to prevail.

Still, Republicans saw it as their duty to raise issues around the separation of powers and how the state should handle the pandemic and future emergencies that — unlike those declared after natural disasters — might last months instead of days. In many Republican districts in Greater Minnesota, contesting the closures of the economy was also good politics.

DFLers saw the ministerial function of judging the declaration as, well, ministerial — something to get through even though the outcome was known. They were looking past the first day toward what was seen as the other special session, the one called to respond to the homicide of George Floyd 18 days prior. A package of bills to was introduced to change how police are held accountable, both administratively and in court; how they are trained; and even to regulate where they live.

Gov. Tim Walz
REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
Gov. Tim Walz
DFLers couldn’t ignore the first session, since that was what triggered the convening of Minnesota’s 201 lawmakers. And Republicans could not ignore the second session. Most condemned the way Floyd died, and each had to acknowledge that there were systemic problems with policing.

Yet the two parties were so far apart on the details that resolution escaped them, and was perhaps impossible. As the final night dragged into the final morning of the session — a deadline set not by law or constitution but by Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka — legislators were exchanging offers that looked more like the opening of talks than the conclusion of them. After a final offer was made by DFL leaders, who wanted a quick resolution, Gazelka said the offer represented not hours worth of work but an entire session’s worth.

2. Everything at the Legislature is connected

An impasse on policing shouldn’t have prevented lawmakers from finishing the handful of other matters considered must-dos, right? After all, what does the process of selling state bonds to build public construction projects around the state have to do with policing? And why couldn’t lawmakers and Walz agree on something they actually agreed on, like sharing $840 million of federal CARES Act money with local governments to help pay for the locals’ COVID-19 response?

They could, they just didn’t, because every issue became intertwined. Walz, for instance, agreed to a higher share of the COVID-19 money for local governments — and to a legislatively bargained method for distributing the money — only if he could get passage of a relatively small change to the state’s two-year budget. That in turn became connected to a GOP-led push for some tax changes for small businesses and farmers.

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka
Republicans opposed any additional spending because the state is in a recession; the budget is heading toward deficit; and, by the way, they weren’t being asked to be involved because of the governor’s state of emergency powers.

To make the linkages plainer, there were threats by the minority caucuses in both the House and the Senate to hold up support for the bonding package until other issues were settled. Since a 60 percent majority is needed to authorize the sale of bonds, the bonding package is one vote that requires help from the minority party, and therefore the one time the often-ignored minorities have clout. For House Republicans, the issue was Walz’s use of executive powers in an emergency; for Senate DFLers, it was policing bills. 

3. Negotiating bills has come to resemble the settling a lawsuit — or the bargaining of a union contract

It was Friday evening when Senate GOP staff sent out word that Senate Majority Leader Gazelka would hold a press conference after completion of an “offer meeting.” 

And what is that?

As with last year’s budget standoff, lawmakers and the governor would break up into rival camps and draw up offers that are then presented to the other side in private meetings. Afterward, each side comes out and discusses the offer. The presenter tells how generous it is and how much movement it represents. The receiver ridicules it as inadequate and not to be taken seriously.

They then retreat to quarters until the next offer meeting. Lawmakers and governors often say they don’t want to negotiate in public, until they do. The ritual of the offer meetings and the subsequent airing of grievances can serve to build public pressure — or communicate to their constituencies that they are fighting for them.

4. Legislators continue to tell time differently from other people

The legislative day in Minnesota runs not from midnight to midnight but from 7 a.m. to 7 a.m. Lawmakers state that fact as though it is the most logical way of looking at time — and something that everyone knows and accepts. 

So when Gazelka said he would adjourn no later than Friday, June 12, most people outside the chain-link fences that now surround the Minnesota Capitol building assumed that meant midnight on Friday. Those inside knew it meant something else: 7 a.m. Saturday morning.

The state constitution provides for adjournment of regular sessions on the third Sunday of May, the only time when midnight is magic. But it also caps the number of regular session days, and someone is charged with counting them to assure that there are enough days left to do the work. Because there are times when work on the Senate and House floors extends past midnight, and because the leadership doesn’t want such work to count as two legislative days instead of one, it has been decreed that as long as they don’t work beyond 7 a.m., it all happened in a single day.

No such tolling applies once a special session is convened, but the compulsion to pull all-nighters remains. If they can work until 7 a.m. on whatever is determined to be the final day, most feel they must work until 7 a.m. on the final day.

5. There are two different scenarios for the next special session

There remains plenty of work to be done at the Legislature this year: police accountability; a bonding bill; money to help counties, cities and townships respond to COVID-19; tax changes; and a supplemental budget. 

All of it was left on the table Saturday morning. Walz can either call a special session if and when a deal is reached on those issues. Or everyone can wait until his likely extension of the peacetime emergency, on or around July 12, at which point he’ll be forced to call the Legislature back in order to give them a chance, once again, to rescind the emergency powers extension. 

But all of that is subject to negotiation. And each presents different scenarios.

An early session gives Walz some ability to bargain the timing and subject matter of the session. He can condition his summons on an agreement with both chambers and both parties and avoid having another extension steal attention. But because the GOP knows he must bring them back into session sometime in mid-July, they can also wait for better terms.

House Speaker Melissa Hortman
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
House Speaker Melissa Hortman
That said, Gazelka repeatedly lamented that sessions called under the emergency powers law don’t provide something most humans need: a deadline. So a negotiated, one-day session, might fit his needs.

House Speaker Melissa Hortman wanted the Legislature to remain in session until a policing deal — and an everything-else deal — could be accomplished. That might include recesses with no formal legislative action but still involve continuing talks. And while Hortman and Walz criticised Gazelka’s deadline as artificial, they also said it helped focus lawmakers. 

Said Hortman: “It got everybody’s butts in gear.”

The wild card is the 2020 election. All 201 seats in the Legislature are on the ballot with high stakes for state and legislative politics. If the Republicans can hold on to the Senate, they are guaranteed a voice in the 2021 session, especially decisions about redistricting. If the DFL can hold the House and win the Senate, their need to work out compromises ends.

With campaigns already in full force, whenever a session is held it will be as much about messaging as legislating.

Comments (24)

  1. Submitted by Bill Lindeke on 06/22/2020 - 12:05 pm.

    Maybe it’s my imagination, Peter, but I am detecting some passisve-aggressive feelings on point #4 here.

    • Submitted by tom kendrick on 06/22/2020 - 01:01 pm.

      I don’t detect that. But what I keep coming back to is term limits. If our politicians are passing the buck on settling up and they’re already trying to angle towards next fall’s election and next year’s potential advantages without taking on the very real need to deal with police reform and many other imperatives in our state, they are not getting down to the work of finishing what we elected (and pay) them to do. Or, maybe they get paid when they have a deal.
      Another idea – Maybe we ought to pull our political leaders from a pool like we do with jury pools for a trial. So they pull me, a teacher, they pull a carpenter, a plumber, a nurse, etc. Then we all sit down and hammer out a deal for the state.

      • Submitted by BK Anderson on 06/22/2020 - 02:29 pm.

        This assumes both sides are equally at fault.

        Unfortunately in the era of “Both Sides!” journalism, no one outside the institution can make an attempt at determining if one side may be more blameworthy than the other or more at fault for failure. And if (for example) a reporter must bend over backwards to find a (weak) example of Dem obstruction in order to “balance” Repub obstinacy in a dozen ways, then they do that.

        Here, we know (from MinnPost reporting) the Dems dropped both policing provisions Repubs had deemed poison pills. The result? Repubs found that other provisions were simply intolerable and would basically only agree to their “list”.

        In the “conservative” era, Repubs are mostly opposed to legislation, other than fighting over budgets and getting their highway or bonding money. Frankly, the conservative movement does not believe in legislating, only repealing (existing) legislation.

        MN has become DC, writ small.

        • Submitted by Bob Barnes on 06/22/2020 - 08:02 pm.

          I would disagree. The Democrats have long been demanding 100% their way or nothing at both State and Federal levels. When they don’t get their way, they use the media to bash the Republicans.

          You don’t want important changes made during a special session. Those things should be hashed out over a longer period of time where both sides give a little to come up with something workable. Walz has refused to budge on what he wants. The Dems have loaded things up with so many poison pills so that even IF they gave up 1 or 2, it’s still not acceptable to the other side.

          I don’t think either side is looking at the right issue anyway. I think they need to end qualified immunity and the police unions. Only then will cops be able to be held legally accountable for their actions. I’ll give you an example.

          If person A shoots a gun, he or she is responsible for every bullet. If any bullets damage someone’s property or hurt someone, person A is held legally liable (either financial penalties or incarceration depending on the damage). If a police officer shoots his/her gun in the line of duty, whatever they hit doesn’t matter, they aren’t held accountable. Qualified immunity puts them above the law and that’s not right.

          • Submitted by BK Anderson on 06/23/2020 - 12:33 pm.

            We’ve already been round and round on this one, Bob. I agree with you that abolishing copper qualified immunity is an advance and that the power of police unions over discipline needs curtailing.

            Dems mostly agree. The problem is that DC Repubs have said these are poison pills.

      • Submitted by Pat Terry on 06/22/2020 - 03:53 pm.

        The idea that term limits or electing “regular folks” as a solution is pretty much nonsense.

        • Submitted by tom kendrick on 06/22/2020 - 06:50 pm.

          Well Pat, it may be nonsense, but I only meant to highlight what is not getting done. I’m sure people go into politics for a variety of reasons, from wanting to do good to wanting to hold the line against change. But my point is, these folks are not getting the job done, and we’re still paying them. I’d be fired if I did that.
          Minimally I’m for term limits (one term) and nobody gets a paycheck until there’s a deal. But the idea of a common pool, like for a jury trial, keeps average citizens involved in determining where their state goes politically.
          If you know a better way, let’s hear it.

          • Submitted by Betsy Larey on 06/28/2020 - 08:00 am.

            2 terms and no lobbying when you’re done with your terms. It’s the lobbying part where all the money is. Eliminate that, nobody would want to run. Term limits will never happen because both parties have a vested interest in staying in

      • Submitted by Bob Barnes on 06/22/2020 - 07:55 pm.

        You could randomly pick names out of an (no longer used) phone book and likely come out with better Legislators than we have now.

  2. Submitted by Alan Straka on 06/22/2020 - 12:32 pm.

    “All 201 seats in the Legislature are on the ballot… ”
    Time to clean house?

  3. Submitted by Brian Mann on 06/22/2020 - 12:35 pm.

    These people are nuts. They care about their own careers and power, not about us.
    If all they’re gonna do is “air grievances”, then maybe just cancel everything and hold a Festivus for the Restofus.

  4. Submitted by BK Anderson on 06/22/2020 - 01:05 pm.

    It’s wonderful how the “War on Terror” can go on and on indefinitely, and justify the greater and greater obscene bloat and waste of the Pentagon, but a state of emergency arising from a (globally acknowledged) viral pandemic (and which focuses solely on the spread of the virus) MUST be terminated ASAP as simply unbearable to MN Repubs.

    The failed, divided legislature of MN should be put out of its misery and ended. Have the future pro-forma emergency-extending session(s) by Zoom. Repubs are the party least willing to compromise on any actual legislation in an election year like this, just as they are the least willing to compromise in ANY year. They do not (and will not) negotiate on anything in good faith, as they see it as all about conferring benefits to or addressing the needs of the greater Twin Cities, which is not where their votes reside.

    So let everyone across the state live without a bonding bill in 2020, especially in a massive recession. That’s what the state’s citizenry deserve for electing the only divided legislature in the US. As a state, we are paralyzed as a result of the conservative movement; we might as well acknowledge the fact.

    • Submitted by Bob Barnes on 06/22/2020 - 08:05 pm.

      A recession/depression is the worst possible time to be borrowing money. Especially when you have a roughly 2 billion dollar deficit in the State budget. The bonding bill needs to be shelved for several years until such time that the economy recovers and revenues come back to balance the budget.

      • Submitted by BK Anderson on 06/23/2020 - 12:22 pm.

        The (very low) interest cost on the bonds is almost certainly offset by the increase in economic activity.

        I agree that it’s a slightly different calculation for a state, which has to actually deal with a deficit. Because your comment, applied to the federal government, makes you sound like Hoover’s economic chief in 1930! As Keynes long ago proved, government borrowing is the only way out of depression.

  5. Submitted by Robert Gauthier on 06/22/2020 - 03:43 pm.

    Maybe Nisswa elects a senator that prioritizes work over his vacation that started Saturday? That is why they closed up. GOP believes that refusing to do anything for anyone outside of their districts is a waste of time. Their views are totally tribal, and racist.

  6. Submitted by Tom West on 06/22/2020 - 10:09 pm.

    Why should anyone be surprised or disappointed that nothing was accomplished? The four leaders had a deal, and then the DFL wanted more police reform, and the whole thing fell apart. Walz had to call the special session to keep his emergency powers. So go back to the drawing board and come to an agreement BEFORE calling another special session. Contrary to some critics, the four leaders do not operate in a vacuum. They are constantly in touch with their members, determining what it will take to get a deal done. Contrary to those who want to blame one party or the other for “refusing to compromise,” either party can cave in to the other if it chooses. It takes two intransigent sides to fail at compromising, not one.

    • Submitted by Pat Berg since 2011 on 06/23/2020 - 09:31 am.

      Are you equating compromise with “caving in”? If so, that’s part of the problem.

      Compromise offers another way forward that should – by definition – be at least minimally acceptable to both parties. But ever since the notion took hold (incorrectly) that compromise means “caving in”, it has effectively made agreement impossible.

      And if agreement is impossible, then I guess the only option remaining is “my way or the highway”. And the lack of progress that ensues.

  7. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 06/23/2020 - 09:25 am.

    If the length of the session is set by Mr. Gazelka, he has proved himself – in the spirit of his party’s purported leader in Washington – incompetent. I have to side with Melissa Hortman, at least to this extent: When you’re elected to do job “X,” you should stay at work, no matter how inconvenient, until job “X” is completed.

    Personally, I’m inclined to view what ended up as very close to a “do-nothing” special session (for which taxpayers were still billed at the usual rates) as simply one more example of why a part-time legislature no longer meets the needs of the state, if it ever did. In the 21st century, with an assortment of technological aids to assist in the work, there’s no excuse for failing to reach an agreement. Mr. Barnes is inclined to blame the lack of compromise on the DFL, but, as a non-native observer, my impression is that it’s far more often the GOP that digs in its heels.

    In any case, the legislature gets a big, red “F” at the top of its term paper from this session: they failed to complete a fairly straightforward assignment.

  8. Submitted by Robert Gauthier on 06/23/2020 - 06:20 pm.

    The GOP trolls are working full-time on this discussion. They’re blaming the other side for their own action to cover up their completely inept Governance over the last two years. Doubt has no ideas that he thinks up for himself, he’s told what to say, Gazelkasimply doesn’t understand State finance, And has a picture of Jesus selling insurance in his office. That is your GOP leader ship

    • Submitted by Tom Anderson on 06/26/2020 - 09:54 pm.

      At least the trolls know how to use spellcheck. Or actually take time to read what they wrote. This was God awful and the moderator has to know it.

  9. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/27/2020 - 02:15 pm.

    I just want to say I really appreciate the fact that whoever wrote this headline didn’t use the term: “takeaways”.

  10. Submitted by Carl Brookins on 06/28/2020 - 08:17 am.

    Been following Minnesota legislature for a few score years. I find the divisions growing larger and more cemented into granite foundations. If you examine the language of the pronouncements, from all factions, you find the same trends. The most frequently used label is “the party.” Or a Senator will declare that “the Republican position…” or “Democrats are ….” “We want” appears often. Far less often is any expression of the people, the voters. Rarely is a legislator quoted saying, “my constituents tell me…. If we the People are mentioned at all it’s usually at arms length, as in “the people need…” Minnesotans must …” Politicians today largely follow the party dictates, not their constituents and the atmosphere and language of compromise are being consigned to the wastebaskets of history. We don’t even agree on whether the wastebins should be round or square.

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