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Chaotic close draws complaints about process

Mike Mullen//May 20, 2015//

Chaotic close draws complaints about process

Mike Mullen//May 20, 2015//

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Sometime around 11:55 p.m. Monday night, House Speaker Kurt Daudt took the two bills from his desk and handed them off to secretarial staff. The bills, empty “vehicles” that had been introduced minutes earlier, were cued-up to hastily pass a capital investment package. But the clock was running down, and the House’s budget still wasn’t complete, so the bills were pushed aside.

After he discarded the bills, a smiling Daudt waved them away with his hand, a gesture that seemed to say, “So much for all that.”

It was a fitting moment for the night, if not the session itself. Much had been promised, rumored and hoped for, but the most ambitious legislation was sacrificed in the name of political realities and timing. There was no bonding bill — not in the House, at least. Taxes and long-term transportation funding would have to wait until next year. Education funding passed, but the House and Senate’s deal does not have the backing of the governor, and was almost certain to force the convening of a special session.

Gov. Mark Dayton held true to that threat Tuesday afternoon, calling a press conference to announce he had vetoed an education budget that, he allowed, he had not yet seen.

If the speaker’s plaintive gesture in that moment was one of resignation, the much bolder act that followed was also emblematic. Legislative leaders and their lieutenants had forged agreements to bring about an orderly, palatable end to the session; questions about the process would have to wait.

Moments after the Senate passed its omnibus jobs and energy bill, the legislation was transferred to the House. Bill author Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, recommended that the House concur with the Senate’s language, though it was unclear how many members were familiar with it.

In a chaotic scene, Daudt pushed the bill to its third reading, opened the roll for a vote, and closed it within a minute. The bill passed 75 votes to 9. The remaining five-dozen members, all Democrats, failed to vote because they were too busy standing and shouting, protesting that they hadn’t been given time to read the bill.

The buildup to that vote had been nearly as busy. With roughly 30 minutes remaining, House Minority Leader Paul Thissen and Rep. Ann Lenczewski, DFL-Bloomington, returned to the House floor from negotiations about a bonding bill, and immediately began an obvious effort at nose-counting, crouching next to individual legislators’ desks and pulling some off the floor for private conversations.

That work continued until the very last moment possible, but was all for naught; Daudt’s casting-aside meant that the House would take up only Garofalo’s jobs and energy bill. The Senate, at that very moment, had focused on bonding, and passed a slight bill of just over $100 million in a matter of minutes. That choice meant the Legacy Amendment budget was not adopted in the upper chamber. Dayton said Tuesday he anticipated both Legacy and bonding to resurface as part of special session negotiations.

The closing act of the House’s 2015 session was only the last, and most dramatic instance of a day filled with complaints about process. Legislators are prohibited from questioning another lawmaker’s motives, but that didn’t stop members of both the House and Senate from peppering their opposite numbers with pointed queries. Where did that amendment come from? Is this even constitutional? Isn’t (insert unpopular measure) only in there as part of a deal to get (slightly less unpopular measure)?

Many seemed surprised or confused by the appearance of new or revised provisions, and some hinted that bills’ true cost or impact would not be apparent until after the session’s adjournment. Among the major provisions that inspired alarm and criticism, but that passed nonetheless:

  • The state government budget would give counties the option to solicit a private audit service in lieu of oversight from State Auditor Rebecca Otto. Opponents said this effectively neuters that constitutional office, while supporters said it would save money for the counties. Dayton, for his part, said undoing that measure would be one of his requirements heading into a special session.
  • The same bill eliminates the political contribution refund (PCR) program, which, House Democrats alleged, was what Republicans had sought in exchange for dropping their language blocking the sale of construction bonds for the new Senate office building.
  • The agriculture and environmental finance bill eliminates the citizens board of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA). Both the House and Senate had passed measures to weaken that board’s power, but a late conference committee amendment abolished the board altogether.
  • Tax-code changes included in the education budget will raise $30 million in new revenues and were added at the behest of caucus leaders. Rep. Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie, conceded during the floor debate that the conference committee did not have a “protracted discussion” about the amendment.

House Republicans and Senate Democrats were united in their desire to adjourn on time, so much so that the Legacy Amendment, which passed the House with about 10 minutes to spare, was not transmitted to the Senate in time. Even still, leaders of those two caucuses were ready to call the session a qualified success.

In a statement issued not long after midnight, Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk heralded additional money for nursing homes — one of the few ideas that received true, across-the-board approval this year — and a boost to the education funding formula as “significant accomplishments.”

Bakk continued: “The last five months we have seen what divided-government looks like. Many bills this session passed the Senate with strong bipartisan support. However the challenge presented by divided government immobilized many promising, critical initiatives.”

Daudt, addressing reporters after the chaotic finale of the lower chamber’s session, was more upbeat about the outcome.

“We got our work done, which is exactly how I expected we would,” he said.

House DFLers and Senate Republicans, meanwhile, found common ground in their dissatisfaction with end results, though each managed to finger its majority caucus as the culprit.

That left one respondent unaccounted for.

Dayton waited to make his views known until Tuesday afternoon. In a candid press conference, the governor said he had communicated his commitment to vetoing the E-12 budget in an email on Friday, and tried to strike another deal with leaders over the weekend.

Daudt, just after adjournment, confirmed he had met with Dayton on Sunday, and continued discussions with staff throughout the day Monday. Late that night, both education budget chairs had expressed hope for a last-minute deal to avoid a veto. Daudt said that he continued negotiating with the administration past 11 p.m., but the agreement never materialized.

The GOP leader argued that the two chambers had found common ground on adding more money to the education formula, and not the governor’s pre-kindergarten program.

“Unfortunately, it didn’t pass either body,” Daudt said of universal pre-K. “That’s not my problem. The governor didn’t do his work to gain his support for his priority.”

Daudt went on to say that he would hope Dayton would drop his veto threat and instead work with legislators on a pre-K package for the 2016 session.

Knowing that the governor’s veto pen would already be out, some advocated that he use it more than once. The Minnesota Environmental Partnership (MEP) issued a press release calling on the governor to veto the environment and agriculture bill for its weakening of regulations, and House Minority Leader Paul Thissen said he would “encourage” a veto of the jobs bill over the rushed floor vote.

Dayton has three days to sign or reject bills, though any he does not act on in three days will automatically become law. The governor told reporters on Tuesday that one of his offers over the weekend had carried a pledge that he would sign any other budget bills agreed to by the Legislature, essentially ceding his own veto power. Because the House GOP balked at that stance, Dayton said he reserved the right to veto other bills he found inadequate.

That might or might not include the jobs and energy package that flew off the House floor, though Dayton said he would not reject it over the harried process that saw it pass.

Said Dayton, who told Capitol press he watched “the last minute-and-a-half” on Youtube: “I’ve seen worse.”

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