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With leaders on board, Dayton calls special session

With a portrait of Abraham Lincoln providing a somewhat familiar backdrop, House Speaker Kurt Daudt waited as representatives gathered Friday for a special session in the State Office Building. (Staff photo: Bill Klotz)

With a portrait of Abraham Lincoln providing a somewhat familiar backdrop, House Speaker Kurt Daudt waited as representatives gathered Friday for a special session in the State Office Building. (Staff photo: Bill Klotz)

As metaphors for the 2015 legislative season go, you could do worse than an incident that occurred a few blocks from the Capitol on Thursday afternoon.

A dump truck traveling eastbound on University Avenue was forging ahead, but its driver forgot what kind of clearance it needed. The front end of the truck-bed was still raised, and it managed to upend several traffic light fixtures as it passed.

So it has been, and remains, for the Minnesota Legislature this year, as a series of green lights have led to little more than clattering collisions. Each time, there’s one more step someone forgot to do; there’s always something in the way. Only on Friday morning would legislators, the public and even the governor himself learn if enough precautions were taken for a safe passage this time.

Gov. Mark Dayton and the four leaders of the legislative caucuses on Thursday night signed terms to convene a special session Friday, paving the way for an end to the standoff that started when Dayton vetoed three omnibus budget bills more than three weeks ago. Fully six bills would be taken up during Friday’s session — four budget bills, a $180 million capital investment bill and a technical and clerical correction bill —  and legislators would have no surprises about their content.

The session began as planned at 10 a.m., and legislators began making progress in short order on the House side, where the jobs and economic development bill was taken up and soon passed. The upper chamber started its day with its most arduous challenge, the agriculture and environment budget, and a number of senators rose to speak out against it. Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, honored his pledge not to offer an amendment, but instead urged members to vote down the bill in order to take a “red pen” to its most controversial measures, such as the elimination of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) citizens board.

After about an hour of debate on the cramped “floor” — such as it was, in the State Office Building hearing room reserved for the Senate’s use — Majority Leader Tom Bakk announced that the Senate would lay the bill on the table and move on to the economic development package, which had arrived from the House. Bakk explained that Senate Republicans wanted to caucus the bill, a clear indication that Senate Minority Leader David Hann thought his members would be needed to pass the bill safely.

The jobs bill was then brought to the floor, and passed easily 50 votes to 14, allowing time for the GOP to discuss its position on the environment bill.

Thursday evening, the budget bills had been walked through in joint House and Senate finance committee meetings, including the contentious jobs and economic development bill. Vetting of bills continued into Thursday night, at least for Senate Democrats, said Sen. Jeff Hayden, DFL-Minneapolis.

Accosted by Capitol press midway through a four-hour caucus meeting Thursday, Hayden, the assistant majority leader, said the meeting was “like a committee,” with senators working through the budget bills line by line.

Even after all that, it remained to be seen whether that caucus — almost certainly forced to work in concert with its Republican counterparts — had enough affirmative votes to pass a controversial agriculture and environment bill, opposed by virtually all of the Senate’s liberals and environmentalists. Dayton spoke to the Senate DFL briefly on Thursday night, saying he wanted to see all six bills pass, though some, most notably the environment bill, had hardly changed since he vetoed them.

Dayton had sought agreement that no amendments would be offered during the one-day session, but accepted a less strict offer from House and Senate leaders Thursday night: The four caucus leaders consented to “oppose any amendments” offered Friday, and to put the bills to a full floor vote in their current form.

In an interview with Capitol Report earlier Thursday, Marty, the DFL lead on the Senate Environment and Energy Committee, said he did not plan to amend the contentious energy bill, or the jobs bill, and its provision to change net metering. Instead, Marty said he hoped to persuade either the governor or his fellow Senate DFLers to hold the bills in place and delay a special session until certain non-budgetary items were removed.

Dayton made the opposite case, telling senators to pass the budget bills even if they, and he, did not like pieces of them. If the budget was not in place by Monday, and a July 1 shutdown still loomed, the Department of Natural Resources would stop taking reservations for state park campsites, and the attorney general’s office would begin preliminary filings to plan for a shutdown.

Speaking after the Thursday caucus broke, Bakk said he wasn’t sure how many minds Dayton had changed with his address to the caucus, and he had no clear indication that the agriculture omnibus would pass. (Bakk said other bills should be less troublesome, at least in the Senate.) The DFL did not count votes Thursday night, and Bakk estimated that support for the bill would be about the same as it had been in May, when just 10 Senate Democrats supported the legislation.

“That many, or more, are going to vote for it now,” Bakk said. “I don’t think [Dayton speaking to the caucus] changed many minds, and I was a little surprised by that, because he actually told people he wanted the bill to pass. But people have been hearing a lot from constituents, and advocacy groups.”

If the bill fails on a floor vote, Bakk acknowledged that a member from the prevailing side — that is, the “no” votes — could make a motion to reconsider, thus keeping the legislation alive for a second vote during the special session. He said this possibility had not come up during the caucus meeting.

Shortly after he signed the special session deal Thursday night, Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt said he had not tried to wrangle guaranteed affirmative votes from Senate Minority Leader David Hann and his GOP caucus, and had not been asked to do so.

Daudt thought blame for the need for a special session should go toward the administration, saying the governor and his staff should have been more “engaged” during the regular term.

“I think when folks see these bills they’re going to see that there’s not a lot of wholesale changes, or material changes, from the bills that we passed out of the Legislature the first time around,” Daudt said. “There are a few tweaks, but for the most part, the bills are fairly similar to where they were.”

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