There was no time limit and no umpire. Everyone was too busy keeping score, and manually, because the temporary arena had no scoreboard.
The environment and agricultural budget bill bounced like a baseball hopping along the foul path through Friday night and into Saturday morning. It was finally ruled fair by the Senate, clearing the way for players and spectators to go home.
By that point it was hard to tell the rules to the game, or even if anyone had really won. If nothing else, the night, and much of the legislative term that preceded it, looked like a victory for the discipline and like-minded politics of the House Republican caucus. Senate Democrats, not so much.
After five months of negotiating among themselves and with Gov. Mark Dayton, Minnesota’s legislature finally agreed to bills to fund the state’s schools, jobs programs, farm services, environmental regulators and a bonding bill, the last to pass Saturday morning, totaling more than $300 million in construction projects for buildings, roads and bridges. The capital investment package was stalled in place on the House floor for much of Friday night, and was only freed by the Senate’s assent with the compromise environment bill.
The content of each of those bills would have come as no surprise prior to session, as each had been agreed to by legislative leaders and the governor’s office prior to his calling the session:
- The education package, once the major holdup in the state budget, brings the $400 million increase passed during the regular session to $525 million, with the majority of that money split between the basic formula and early childhood programs.
- The jobs and economic development package passed with its controversial change to net metering intact, as well as electricity rate breaks for the mining and forestry industries; Dayton was also unable to convince House Republicans to increase the $10 million for broadband infrastructure grants.
- A bonding bill significantly larger than the one introduced late in the regular session will fund $27 million in unforeseen Capitol restoration costs and $24 million for flood mitigation projects, among other targets.
The education, jobs and Legacy Amendment omnibus bills each passed by overwhelming margins, and the capital investment bill easily surpassed the two-thirds requirement in both chambers.
But even Thursday night, after Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk had signed off on the special session terms, he said he could not guarantee that the most contentious bill had the votes.
Bakk’s doubt was well-placed, and what had been a fairly smooth procession was brought to a screeching halt when the agriculture and environment bill failed 33 votes to 32. (The bill needed a majority of the full 67-member Senate to pass, and two members were then absent.) The “no” votes on the environmental budget marked a pre-existing rift in the Democratic caucus, though several Republicans crossed the aisle to vote the bill down on the first attempt.
The vote was also the first demonstration of complications that arose through a true, roll call vote by voice. Two Democrats, Sens. Charles Wiger (Maplewood) and Melisa Franzen (Edina) initially passed on their votes, eventually choosing to vote against the bill, while two Republicans opted to switch from “no” to “yes,” but only after it was assured the bill would fail.
That vote led to a four-hour delay, during which time the Senate majority decided to amend the bill, seemingly in violation of an agreement the four caucus leaders had made with Dayton prior to session.
Sen. John Marty DFL-Roseville, the caucus leader for environmental policy, spoke out against the bill’s passage under the original language, and introduced the two policy changes as an amendment. The amendment would have restored the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) citizens board, a panel the angered dairy and agricultural industry advocates with its permitting requirements, and stripped a provision that would have weakened regulation on waste responsibilities for nonferrous mining projects.
Senate Minority Leader David Hann warned that even holding a vote “violates what we have all, in effect, agreed to, by agreeing to go into special session in the first place.”
Bakk, for his part, stuck to his pledge “to oppose” an amendment, and voted against it, but the overriding majority of his caucus backed Marty, and the amendment cleared 36 votes to 28; Bakk then voted for the amended version, which was sent back to the House by a tally of 40 votes to 26, with Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, the only Republican voting in favor. Nelson did not speak in favor of the bill during the floor debate, but acknowledged her decision with a tweet, saying simply, “I voted my district.”
The House stayed in caucus for some while longer, but acted quickly once it returned, pushing aside the capital investment bill, which was then being held as leverage, to reconsider the environment package. Bill author Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, spoke briefly in support of changing the bill back to “honor the agreement we all came here to do.” That argument was enough, and the original form was restored by a tally of 73-52, with the DFL’s Iron Range members and Rep. Jeanne Poppe, DFL-Austin, joining the GOP in the majority.
Back in the Senate, the bill was given a series of up-or-down votes to reject the House’s restored language. This time, a number of DFL members switched back, supporting the bill as it had been prepared for the special session. All but one of the Senate DFL votes for the bill came from the caucus’s rural members; Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, was the lone suburban Democrat to support its passage.
Most Democrats reverted to the opposition seen at the tail end of the regular session. The bill passed 39 votes to 28, with just one Republican — Sen. Sean Nienow, R-Cambridge — voting against it. There was one minor difference between that final vote and the contentious vote that first passed the same bill in May: Bakk, whose participation in the original budget deal was a point of controversy within the caucus, ultimately voted against it.
The Senate vote effectively ended the night’s drama, leaving only the Revisor’s bill and a widely well-received bonding bill still to be passed. Both did, in short order, and the House adjourned sine die around 1:30 a.m., and the Senate ended its scheduled work on the biennial budget just shy of 2 a.m. Saturday morning.
Dayton apparently saw no need to keep the drama alive, and called a press conference later that morning to announce that he had already signed all six bills. In a statement, Dayton said the legislative session had seen “many missed opportunities,” while also producing a big, undiminished one: The unspent surplus, combined with the budget reserve, stand at nearly $2.5 billion, which Dayton called “a welcome contrast to the financial uncertainties of recent years.”