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

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

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

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.