The third meeting of a working group on the walleye crisis on Lake Mille Lacs did not start or end well for Gov. Mark Dayton’s commissioners and staff. Come to think of it, the middle part wasn’t all that great, either.
Lawmakers tasked with considering legislative actions for a special session, possibly as soon as next week, expressed bipartisan disinterest in the notion, with some laying blame on a lack of detailed plans from the Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) and the Department of Revenue.
Those agencies have presented options for how the state might go about insuring zero-interest loans for resorts and other Mille Lacs area businesses affected by the freeze on walleye fishing, enacted last month, and the course for property tax abatements that would be issued by local governments. Neither proposal has caught on with most working group members, and the most outspoken have continued to raise the prospect of the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) renewing the walleye season at some point.
Rep. Tom Hackbarth, R-Cedar, who co-chairs the working group and held the gavel on Thursday, expressed his frustration about the lack of progress at the outset of the hearing. When DEED Commissioner Katie Clark Sieben prepared to count-off two dozen questions for the panel to consider about a potential loan program, Hackbarth interjected, saying he was a “little confused” about the proceedings.
“This is our third meeting, and I still don’t see a proposal,” he said. “You have questions for us. We’re looking for answers from you.”
Negotiations between the administration and the working group hardly advanced beyond that stage on Thursday. Panelists collectively alternated between doubting the need for a targeted special session and seemingly daring the governor to call one on his own, if he feels it necessary.
Dayton has said he would not call for another session without agreement from majorities of both the House and Senate for a specific, tailored agenda on the one issue. For several weeks, the matter has taken the form of a political game of “chicken.” Legislators say it is the governor’s prerogative to call a special session, and have suggested he could do so at any time.
The governor, in turn, has said lawmakers should be more explicit if they do not want to provide aid for Minnesotans struggling after the fishing closure.
“Tragically, the leaders of this working group have allowed its focus to become problem avoidance, rather than business assistance,” Dayton said in a statement following Thursday’s hearing. “If they do not want to help Mille Lacs resorters and residents in a special session, they should say so.”
In fact, some members said as much on Thursday, though not in those words. Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, said it was “clear” members of both parties were not interested in the proposals from DEED and the state tax agency, and suggested that House and Senate leaders would not be able to guarantee a “contained” set of parameters for a special session.
“We’re not going to get a consensus with the Legislature,” said McNamara. He added: “You’re not going to get 68 [House] votes, and 34 [Senate] votes, lock-step, in a one-day session, and bang this through. It’ll be mass chaos, that’s my experience.”
McNamara added that hearings on economic stimulus, as well as new DNR policy toward the lake, could be held next January. Though the 2016 session will be shortened, leadership is allowing early bill entry prior to session’s start; at that time, lawmakers would know if the lake had rebounded enough to be opened for the winter fishing season.
Hackbarth did not rule out a special session altogether, but eventually came back to his initial criticism, saying the onus was on the governor to craft legislation for economic relief.
“I thought, when [Dayton] spoke of a special session that he had a plan already,” Hackbarth said. He added: “This committee was not put together to make that plan.”
Moments later, Hackbarth, who acknowledged that some legislators were still waiting for their turn to speak, adjourned the meeting, and said the group did not need to meet again without a more solid proposal from the goveror’s office.
Dayton called Hackbarth’s behavior as chairman “unprecedented,” when compared to recent bipartisan efforts to address natural disasters. The statement might not ring true with working group members, some of whom have continued to question whether the crisis at Mille Lacs is more manmade in nature. McNamara said the DNR had “screwed up” repeatedly.
After the DNR presented an updated management plan, which includes new assessments in September and an updated reading of the lake’s walleye population by October, Sen. Dave Brown, R-Becker, asked why the agency was not looking to “reduce government’s role” in regulating the fishing season.
“My concern,” Brown said, “is I don’t want to be back here next August, talking to all the commissioners and trying to figure out another financial package because nothing’s really changed in the management of the lake.”
Sarah Strommen, assistant commissioner to the DNR, replied that the new management plan was an adjustment, and not an expansion of the state’s involvement on the lake, and said the new approach was meant to head off future crises before they occur.
“Our focus is to not have to be here again,” Strommen said.
Only a few legislators seemed engaged with the possible effect of economic packages. Among them, Rep. Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton, suggested the area could be served by the establishment of an “enterprise zone,” and was encouraged in that thinking by Sen. Tom Saxhaug, DFL-Grand Rapids, though Erickson declined to spell out details on Thursday.
Minnesota Management and Budget Commissioner Myron Frans offered a rare defense of the notion of a one-day relief session. Frans acknowledged there would still be “plenty” to do to adjust lake management in 2016, but said an aid bill for local residents could start improving conditions in the short term.
“We can’t solve every problem today,” Frans said. “But we can provide a direct, targeted relief package, if we choose to do so.”
The next step in the conversation, if there is one, is unclear. Hackbarth released a statement after adjournment saying the group should hold off until a “concrete” plan is submitted by the administration. Dayton, meanwhile, urged working group members to “immediately” make desired changes to the proposed loan and tax abatement program, and submit the amended plan to legislative leaders for review.
Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, holds the gavel, and would be responsible for calling the working group’s next meeting, if indeed there is another.