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As DFL lawmakers look to end session early, could human nature get in the way?

It would seem that DFL control of the House, Senate and governor’s office would improve chances for an early finish. But as one longtime observer points out, “Nobody fights like family.”

Minnesota House chamber
A resolution prepared for adoption before the end of this session that sets the date for the 2024 session as Feb. 12 is contingent on a May 18 adjournment, which would be nearly four days before the constitutional end date of May 22.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

It is the unicorn of any legislative session.

What if, rather than working deep into the night of the final day of session, rather than needing an unending special session, the House and Senate adjourned early.

For weeks, House Speaker Melissa Hortman has mentioned it as possible, even likely, for this year’s session. A resolution prepared for adoption before the end of this session that sets the date for the 2024 session as Feb. 12 is contingent on a May 18 adjournment, which would be nearly four days before the constitutional end date of May 22.

“There are no hard-and-fast deadlines except for we’re leaving on May 18,” Hortman said Thursday, adding the caveat that the legal definition of a legislative day runs from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., so her timeline would expire at 7 a.m. on May 19.

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So how often does the Minnesota Legislature finish early? How about never?

Gary Carlson, a lobbyist for the League of Minnesota Cities, went back to the first session he worked — 1983 — and looked at the official journals of the House and Senate. Not once in the 20 budget sessions (which happen every other year) in that time period did adjournment happen before the constitutional deadline. Only seven times did the Legislature not require a special session to complete a budget, a lowly 35% success rate.

The Legislative Research Library went back another decade to the year when the state switched to flexible sessions that allowed the Legislature to use a given number of “Legislative Days” — 120 — over each two-year meeting. Early adjournments? Zero.

The unicorn has been dreamed of but never seen in the marble confines of the Minnesota State Capitol.

Carlson’s research did show that the odds of finishing on time — but not early — improve with a so-called partisan trifecta. That is when the House, the Senate and the governor’s office are all held by the same party. In Minnesota, that occurred just four times in 40 years, always favoring the DFL. In all four, the session adjourned on time, though a special session was needed in 1989 to override a governor’s veto.

Gary Carlson
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Gary Carlson
The 2023 Legislature and the governor are all controlled by the DFL.

The opposite can be true as well. Divided government was in play during two recent partial government shutdowns when a budget wasn’t approved by the end of June. Those came in 2005 and 2011.

So why is 2023 different? One motivation is personal. Hortman has hopes of attending a reunion at Harvard University’s Kennedy School where she earned a master’s in public affairs in 2018. That class meets in Boston over the final weekend of the session. Hortman said Thursday she would like to attend and is on a panel discussion during the program. But she said she has not yet purchased plane tickets and will go only if the session is completed.

Hortman said other lawmakers also have a desire to attend graduations next weekend and are motivated to not be at the Capitol. Senate DFL leadership has not joined in House predictions of an early finish.

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House Speaker Melissa Hortman
House Speaker Melissa Hortman
Sen. Nick Frentz, DFL-North Mankato, is an assistant majority leader of the Senate. He said he was surprised at what five decades of history says about the chance of an early finish.

“But as they say on Wall Street, ‘past performance is no guarantee of future results,’” he joked.

“I think both chambers are trying to do a great job and if that ends up early, that will be great news for everybody,” Frentz said. “The Senate has not passed a resolution for May 18, but that doesn’t mean we couldn’t be done by then.”

Carlson intends to retire at the end of the 2023 session, whenever that is. He said there are reasons why finishing early is difficult, including human nature, politics and the workload of a budget session.

photo of article author
State Sen. Nick Frentz
“It just takes more time,” Carlson said. “On top of that, there’s always emerging policy issues that are pressing, and they sprinkle those into the debate as well.

“But in the end, they’ve introduced over 3,300 bills in each body and some of those are near and dear to legislators’ hearts, and they have pressure to keep trying to push bills out,” he said.

People respond to deadlines, too. As long as there’s life left in contract negotiations or a legislative session, participants think they have time left. In politics, it is hard to tell constituents that you stopped trying before you absolutely had to.

“I can always get more if we hold out and push a little harder,” Carlson said of that way of thinking. A trifecta helps but it is no guarantee: There are ideological rifts among parties, as well as between them.

“Nobody fights like family,” Carlson said.