Special session talks nothing new for Minnesota

Published 10:24 am Monday, June 27, 2016

ST. PAUL — Minnesota’s Legislature is living through special session deja vu.

Gov. Mark Dayton and legislative leaders have repeatedly discussed a possible overtime session to resurrect a $1 billion public construction package and a $260 million tax relief bill, but pessimism about the session has been growing. If their effort to find a compromise and hold a special session fails, it won’t be anything new.

Here’s a look at the other special session talks in the last year.

The one that worked

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Minnesota’s Legislature is no stranger to needing extra time at the Capitol: It’s held 15 special sessions in the last decade to wrap up two-year budgets and extend emergency relief after storms and floods.

Lawmakers’ last early return was to cobble together a few outstanding budget bills that didn’t earn Gov. Mark Dayton’s approval in 2015. It took weeks of private talks, but Dayton and legislative leaders finally signed off on the pieces of a deal to get the Legislature quickly in and out — a key step in any special session. Only the governor can call lawmakers back to St. Paul.

But the stakes were higher in 2015 than in subsequent special sessions that failed to launch. The prospect of disrupted government services and thousands of public employee layoffs weighed on lawmakers. With their budget-setting responsibilities finished last year, the pressure has been lowered.


A different kind of natural disaster prompted talk of an overtime session last summer: Mille Lacs Lake was running out of walleye to fish.

The special session speculation to send aid to the Central Minnesota lake started even before the state closed walleye fishing on Mille Lacs in early August. Public meetings were called in which a dozen-plus lawmakers waded through potential rescue packages of forgivable loans and advertising dollars. Summits between the governor and the leaders of the Republican-controlled House and Democrat-led Senate were held.

But the effort fell apart after two weeks, as some lawmakers couldn’t shake the idea that an emergency session of the Legislature just wasn’t necessary. Tina Chapman, a resort owner and head of the region’s tourism board, remembers her fruitless trips to lobby lawmakers at the Capitol and disbelief that some thought it could wait.

“It just seems like there are lots of games that get played,” she said. “I don’t know that it had anything to do with Mille Lacs.”

Fast forward several months, and legislators agreed this year to send some extra advertising dollars to boost tourism and some extra financial assistance through the Department of Employment and Economic Development to area businesses.

Steelworkers and more

Dayton tried for a triple play last winter, aiming to get lawmakers back to St. Paul to extend unemployment relief for laid-off steelworkers, fix a dispute with the federal government that threatened to disrupt Minnesota residents’ domestic air travel and address longstanding racial economic disparities.

The talks dragged on for months as more Iron Range workers exhausted their benefits. But GOP lawmakers insisted that any funding to close racial gaps be paired with private school tuition tax credits, anathema to Democrats. And House Speaker Kurt Daudt publicly questioned whether a special session was necessary, preferring to wait for the regular session instead.

And wait they did. The Legislature eventually voted to extend steelworker unemployment by 26 weeks and earmarked $35 million for racial disparities programs. But they ran out of time to upgrade driver’s licenses to satisfy the federal Real ID act.

Tax cuts and construction

The Legislature’s latest round of special talks began just as the Legislature’s late May deadline arrived, prompted by the failure of a $1 billion bonding bill for public works projects. Dayton’s veto of a $260 million tax relief package fueled the flames.

Three weeks in to private negotiations, both sides have said they’re no closer to an agreement. Rather than negotiating possible agreements on repairs for roads, bridges and funding for a light-rail train that has upset Republicans, they’ve emerged from meetings blaming each other for the lack of progress, queuing up lines for the November election.

Dayton says there’s no deadline for a final decision. But he and Daudt have conceded that the longer they wait, the less likely a deal becomes.

“I’m very pessimistic at this point,” Dayton said this week.