People in and around the Minnesota State Capitol talk (and talk and talk) about special sessions like they are a common occurrence.
They’re not. With a few exceptions that fit into two specific categories, the Minnesota state Legislature rarely returns to St. Paul once the business of a regular session and the adoption of the state budget is wrapped up.
This year, a months-long debate over whether lawmakers will return has become part of a familiar political songbook. Since finishing legislative work in the Capitol in early July, Gov. Tim Walz and Senate GOP leaders have engaged in a back-and-forth about calling a special session to give bonus checks to frontline pandemic workers, provide drought relief for farmers and get help for hospitals and nursing homes battling COVID-19.
Just when it appears they will, they say they won’t. As it turns out, special sessions called to quickly pass bills on emergent issues in Minnesota are as common as unicorns.
It might not seem that way after the monthly sequence of special sessions of 2020, triggered by Walz’s decisions to extend his peacetime state of emergency. But those sessions were historic exceptions to the rule that makes it difficult to strike the sort of political agreements that would make governors comfortable in calling a special session that has no end.
A brief history of special sessions
Legislative history demonstrates the relative rarity of special sessions in Minnesota.
Outside the time of COVID — and except for the extensions of regular sessions that are frequently needed to wrap up the budget — the last special purpose special session in Minnesota was in 2013. And even the reason for that session as well as the four non-budget special sessions prior to that — disaster relief — is no longer applicable; the state created an emergency fund in 2013 that lawmakers fill up before they leave town in the spring.
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 an extension of a regular session or for disaster relief came in 1997. The reason then was to pass the funding plan for the Twins baseball stadium.
Former Gov. Mark Dayton frequently proposed special sessions on everything from a walleye shortage to the relocation of Syrian refugees. None were called.
The diminishing odds of a 2021 special session
For months since the conclusion of the 2021 legislative session — which, yes, required a special session to be completed — lawmakers and Walz have spoken about the upcoming special session. Sometimes they have spoken to each other, sometimes they have exchanged letters that seemed aimed more at public opinion than the other elected officials.
Initially, a Labor Day special session was anticipated to ratify an agreement among the parties to give away $250 million in federal funds to essential workers who couldn’t work remotely during the pandemic. No such agreement has been reached. Then it was about getting help to drought-stricken farmers, who are still waiting for help. Then it was to tweak state laws regulating hospitals to give them flexibility to respond to the latest COVID-19 surge. Walz said last week that he’s waited so long for legislative action that he’s found ways around their inaction.
Governors routinely try to limit special session agendas by threatening to veto any bills that are not on an agreed-to list, while lawmakers resist what they see as a challenge to their power as a co-equal branch of government under the state constitution.
During those COVID sessions last year, lawmakers did pass significant bills, often after Republicans spent hours complaining about Walz’s emergency powers. And it’s impossible to say whether the sessions would have been convened if not for the emergency powers law.
A large bonding bill and pandemic aid to restaurants and entertainment venues might have been enough cause to convene a special session. But both came after the Senate GOP made clear they had their sights set on removing some of Walz’s top appointees — something that can only be done during session, doesn’t need House agreement and is exempt from a governor’s veto — which might have led Walz to either seek promises not the fire commissioners (as he did this year) or wait until the regular session and take his chances then.
So powerful are the forces against calling a special session that even when Senate Majority Leader Jeremy Miller, R-Winona, said last week his caucus would not use a special session to fire the likes of state Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm, Walz wasn’t buying it. That was largely because the threat of firing Malcolm was replaced with a demand that Walz agree to not issue statewide vaccine mandates (something he is already banned from doing) and cancel his order that state workers either be vaccinated or regularly tested for COVID-19.
“It sounded like yesterday that we had this thing done,” Walz said Wednesday. “That wasn’t quite correct.”
The day before, even after asserting that the end to the immediate threat against Malcolm’s employment was “a big step forward,” House Speaker Melissa Hortman remained equivocal about the odds for a special session.
Hortman said that while the Miller offer “could” lead to a special session, “we also are coming in on January 31st of 2022,” the day the next regular session of the Legislature convenes. “So given the number of things that we have to resolve here, it’s possible we could get it done by then. But it’s also possible that it could get pushed to the regular session.”
Is all this a mark of failure? Another example of the poisonous political atmosphere that taints state and federal politics? An excuse for finger-pointing and blame-deference?
Yes. But it is also pretty typical. And it illustrates that, unlike regular sessions and those pandemic sessions, special sessions require negotiation and agreement and concessions that have been hard to come by for decades in Minnesota.