Gov. Mark Dayton and legislative leaders may be approaching a “now or never” point as they consider a possible late August special session. Returning to the Capitol could pose political risks and rewards to Dayton and both parties as lawmakers, all of whom face re-election this fall, seek to focus on campaigning.
Dayton and leaders of the Republican-majority House and Democrat-controlled Senate indicated last month that they were working toward convening a special session in the third week of August. Unfinished business from the regular session, which ended in May, includes a $1 billion-plus bonding bill and a $260 million tax-relief bill that Dayton vetoed because of a wording error.
With the election looming in November, wrapping up those items in August is critical, Carleton College political science professor Steven Schier said. He thinks the odds of an overtime session taking place in August are improving but can’t imagine lawmakers returning in September or October.
“It would seem to me we’re getting close to the now or never stage,” Schier said. “If they can’t do it in August it’s probably not going to happen because the political temperature will be so high that everybody will be dug in and it will be difficult to act. It’s going to be hard to get caucuses to agree when they’re in the middle of a campaign. That’s probably what’s taking the negotiations so long.”
A special session would mean more to Republicans, whose constituents “need some action on taxes, roads and spending,” Schier said. If a session doesn’t take place, Dayton and Democratic Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, “can always blame a recalcitrant Republican House for inaction,” Schier said.
“Being able to say you prevented bigger tax increases while nothing else happens is a tough sell for Republicans,” Schier said. “They need to have something to take back to their voters so the Democrats can’t paint them as pure obstructionists.”
Republican Senate minority whip David Osmek, R-Mound, however, said Dayton and Senate Democrats were responsible for the need to return to pass the tax bill and bonding package. “I’m torn whether I want to let them off the hook and have the voters in November tell them what they think of what they did,” he said.
Osmek said he would “hesitantly say yes” to a limited special session to pass the tax bill and public works spending package. He would support some additional bonding for state colleges and universities, which Dayton has asked for in special session negotiations. He said he felt “51 percent that we will have a special session and 49 percent that we won’t” have a special session.
“This isn’t something that anyone other than Senate Democrats and the governor have constructed and created,” Osmek said. “It is very difficult to say we need a special session because we did our job and the people who didn’t do their job need to hear at the ballot box from the voters on why they torpedoed good bills or vetoed bills that were just fine.”
House Deputy Minority Leader Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, said he hoped to return for a special session, which he believes could occur during the week of Aug. 15. The timing wouldn’t change the dynamics of campaigning for legislators much, aside from taking them off the road for a day or two, because the presidential race continues to dominate the news.
What Minnesota voters likely will remember is the political gridlock that created the need for a special session. “Regardless of when we have that special session, that’s going to be on voters’ minds,” Marquart said. “That’s why we need to have a special session, because there are a lot of good things in the tax bill and a lot of good things in the bonding bill.”
Calling a special session sometime in the next two weeks, after the Aug. 9 primary, would make sense, political science professor Larry Jacobs of the University of Minnesota said. But election-year politics may lead both parties to question whether having one is a good idea.
“The Republicans would love to get a tax bill approved; that’s something they could talk about,” Jacobs said. “They’d like to get some of the bonding approved. The Democrats would like to get parts of the tax cuts but not all of them. They’re mostly in it, particularly the leadership, for the transit part.”
Funding for light-rail transit between Minneapolis and its western suburbs likely won’t win Republican support, Jacobs said. “To me it’s a bit of a Gordian knot where each party has something they want but they don’t necessarily share the agenda of what it would be,” Jacobs said.
Seeing little room for compromise between Republican and DFL lawmakers, skipping a special session could be the more appealing option politically, Jacobs said.
“If the Republicans go along, they open themselves up to splitting their base and some pretty harsh attacks by the ultra-conservatives, the tea party types who think [House Speaker Kurt] Daudt [R-Crown] has already been too conciliatory” Jacobs said. “The DFL feels like, ‘Why are we going to compromise with them now? We’re going to have the majorities in a few months. If we wait, the election will be held in two months. We can get it all.’ Or they think they can get it all.”
Dayton, who isn’t running for re-election, has the least at stake, said Schier, the Carleton college political scientist. “If nothing happens he’ll be campaigning against the ‘do-nothing’ Republican House with the hope of getting a Democratic Legislature so he can end his governorship with a cooperative set of lawmakers and get a lot of his legacy in place in his final two years,” Schier said.
Hamline University political science professor David Schultz said either party may realize not having a special session is to its advantage.
“I can see a lot of reasons why this could still collapse and why really only the House Republicans truly have an incentive to want to go to session,” Schultz said, referring to tax cuts they wanted but didn’t get. “House Democrats don’t have an incentive; they can portray the Republicans as obstructionists. The Senate Democrats don’t have a powerful incentive either. The session may require a political calculus on the part of Dayton and some of the Democrats that may not be there to support a special session.”
Schultz said he considers a special session unlikely.
“I don’t see a perfect storm or the stars aligning at this point, that they’re going to get a consensus to be able to do this,” Schultz said. “If they do, it’s going to be a very modest session in terms of correcting the tax bill and that’s it. But I’m really skeptical that we’re going to see one.”