Pioneer Press — Special Sessions aren’t so special anymore for the MN Legislature. How did it get this way?
By Bill Salisbury
There they go again.
The Minnesota Legislature will likely blow through Monday’s constitutional deadline for adjourning for this year and head into a special session, expected on June 14, to finish their main job: adopting a two-year state budget.
It’s no surprise that they failed to get the job done on time. It’s becoming a habit.
In the last 20 years, lawmakers have had to hold special sessions to pass seven of their 10 biennial budgets.
Why can’t they finish during their regular sessions that end in mid-May? One reason is partisan division.
It takes three entities — the House, Senate and governor — to pass a budget, and Minnesota has had divided government in all seven years that policymakers have gone into overtime to reach a budget agreement — 2001, 2003, 2005, 2011, 2015, 2017 and 2019.
There was only one session — 2013 — when one party, the DFL, held all three legs of the budget stool, and they passed a budget and ended the session on time.
Currently, Minnesota has the only divided state government in the nation. Republicans control the Senate, while DFLers hold the House and governor’s office. With sharply different views on taxes and spending, among other issues, they will likely fail to reach a budget agreement before Monday’s deadline.
HOW DID IT GET LIKE THIS?
It doesn’t have to end this way. Divided governments have cut budget deals during their regular sessions in the past. Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty and DFL-controlled legislatures did it in 2007 and 2009.
“When we had a divided government and neither side had the upper hand, we found success by focusing on the art of the possible,” Pawlenty said in an email.
What’s different this time? For one thing, the extreme partisanship that pervades the national political scene has an impact on the state Capitol. “I think the growing partisan divide in the Legislature is clearly part of the cause,” Gary Carlson, the League of Minnesota Cities’ veteran intergovernmental relations director, said in an email.
State Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, agreed. This year there’s a “hyper sense of partisanship” at the Capitol.
Political activists are responsible for some of that, he said. For both parties, “the base is pretty ideologically adamant. … Legislators have to pay attention to their base because that’s who brings you to the dance.”
When Mariani was first elected in 1990, moderate legislators in both parties advised him to “strike up relationships across the aisle” because that’s how lawmakers got things done. Now, he said, there’s less of that and more pressure from political activists to hold to their ideological beliefs and not compromise with the other side.
“The temptation to score political points is pretty strong,” he said.
WHERE’S THE PUBLIC PRESSURE?
Years ago, lawmakers felt pressure to finish their work during regular sessions because they feared voters would punish them if they returned to the Capitol for overtime. Now, Carlson said, “there seems to be less public repercussion for failure of the Legislature to complete its work on time. I guess that could be due to the fact that this is such a regular occurrence.”
It sure is. The Minnesota Legislature has held 20 special sessions since 2000, seven of them in 2020 alone. By contrast, the Legislature held just four special sessions between 1900 and 1920.
Many of the recent special sessions were held to address budget deficits, where lawmakers had to make unpopular choices among tax increases, spending cuts and resorting to fiscal gimmicks to balance the books.
That wasn’t the case this year, however. The state was flush with cash, thanks to a projected $1.6 billion budget surplus.
FLUSH WITH CASH
Both parties proposed spending more than $50 million over the next two years, but DFLers and Republicans remained about $1 billion apart heading into this weekend.
Then last week, state officials learned Minnesota will receive $2.83 billion in federal funds from the roughly $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, about $250 million more than they expected. Reaching agreement on how to spend the large sum and passing it through a complicated legislative process was almost impossible to complete before the end of the regular session.
“This year with COVID, the federal stimulus and everything else made it extra hard,” Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said Thursday. “But there is real commitment from myself and the speaker and bringing the governor in to do it, and so I’m still optimistic that we’re going to get a good product in the end. It’s just that it’s more complicated.”
Failing to pass a budget before the end of the regular session won’t have a significant impact. July 1 is the important deadline. State government will shut down if lawmakers don’t pass a two-year spending plan by then.
“Deadlines with real and immediate consequences create leverage, but the May legislative deadline doesn’t really fit that description,” Pawlenty wrote. “While meeting that deadline is helpful, the consequences for missing it don’t immediately add up to much. Funding doesn’t really run out until July, and the general public doesn’t seem to get that upset or even remember brief special sessions that conclude before a real shutdown begins.”
But facing a possible July 1 shutdown will pressure lawmakers to act next month. “You really need a solid deadline to focus people’s attention,” said Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent, DFL-Woodbury.