The Minnesota state Legislature gets together again Wednesday with even less to do — and less prospect of succeeding — than it did during two previous summertime special sessions.
These mid-month gatherings adhere to a predictable schedule, coinciding with extensions of the peacetime state of emergency first declared by Gov. Tim Walz in March to address COVID-19: Extend the emergency by 30 days, convene the Legislature, repeat.
With much of the financial work of the 2020 session left undone when the regular session adjourned on May 18, these bonus sessions were once seen as a way of finishing some business, which included a bonding bill, a tax bill and a supplemental budget. But politics got in the way. Twice, in mid-June and mid-July, the divided House and Senate met and tried to address those issues. And twice they failed.
The only accomplishment so far this summer was on legislation that emerged in earnest one week after the regular session, when the Memorial Day death of George Floyd spurred action and resulted in a compromise police reform bill passed last month.
But DFLers and Republicans are still far apart on resolving the overdue budget and tax bills, and Republicans who are in the minority in the House have used the requirement that bonding bills pass with a 60 percent majority to try and leverage other issues, primarily the exercise of emergency powers by Walz.
Lawmakers won’t even try this week to address any of those things. Because the state is going to market this week to sell $1.2 billion in bonds from previous sessions, it is required to make no changes to state finances. That means no tax cuts, no additional spending and no additional debt. “Quiet time” it’s called.
Also, as with the June and July sessions, access to the capitol will be restricted to legislators, staff, reporters and others with state-issued credentials.
One area that might be discussed this week is using $30 million in federal CARES Act money to provide increased grant funds for day services for people with disabilities in Minnesota. Those centers have only recently been allowed to reopen but are suffering from limits on attendance under social distancing rules. Any movement on the issue would require agreement from all four caucuses and Walz, and prime sponsor Sen. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, said Monday he expects the funding to be approved for House and Senate consideration.
“Yay,” Abeler wrote after getting the news that it would be considered.
The Legislature can try again in September or October on bonding and taxes, when there will likely be additional peacetime-emergency-related special sessions. Those will be even closer to the general election, however, when all 201 seats in the state Legislature will be on the ballot, a time when political differences are exacerbated rather than resolved.
So what will happen Wednesday?
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, a Republican from East Gull Lake, said his chamber will again vote to rescind Walz’s emergency declaration. That, after all, is the legal reason for the session. Republicans continue to assert that such powers are no longer necessary and that Walz needs to again include the legislative branch in legislating.
Then, the DFL-controlled House will just as certainly reject any move to lift the emergency.
Both Gazelka and House Speaker Melissa Hortman predicted relative brevity.
“I’m pretty sure it’s going to be a one-day, short session,” Gazelka said, with emergency powers being the only issue. “We think he should be giving them up,” he said of Walz’s authority. “We think the virus is serious but we’re not in an emergency related to it. We know what we’re doing now.”
House Speaker Melissa Hortman agreed that the emergency powers debate could be the only substantive action, and that it will likely follow the pattern set by Republicans in the June and July sessions.
“The Republicans are going to make us listen to them drone on for hours and then we will take a vote, and the vote will be that the Minnesota House is not revoking the emergency,” the Brooklyn Park DFLer said.
It is a decision with consequences, and one her caucus doesn’t make lightly, she said. “It is not an easy decision to stand with the governor when he’s doing hard things,” Hortman said. And it is an election issue, especially for her members outside the Metro area who are being targeted with mailings “that make it sound like they are single-handedly responsible for every decision the governor makes.”