It ended with a sigh.
“Members, I think we need a break,” Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, told senators at dawn Saturday, “from each other and from this place.”
Gazelka then asked for a vote to adjourn last week’s eight-day special session, leaving a lot of crucial business incomplete.
The Legislature will almost certainly be back, likely by mid-July. That is when Gov. Tim Walz is expected to once again extend his COVID-19 peacetime emergency. But the June special session, which was dominated by talk of police-accountability reforms, got none of them done.
Lawmakers did send 10 bills off to the governor’s desk. But a jobs/bonding bill; the distribution of $841 million in federal COVID-19 relief aid to local governments; and a $130 million bill to help rebuild incinerated swaths of Minneapolis and St. Paul were not among them.
It’s not completely clear what went wrong. “I have to say that I’m not quite sure what happened in this,” Gov. Tim Walz told reporters on Saturday afternoon. “Movement was starting to happen.”
Gazelka insisted all along that he would adjourn the session at midnight on June 20. That didn’t happen, raising hopes as Friday bled into Saturday that negotiations might bear fruit.
However, as House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, cautioned early Saturday, work after midnight did not technically violate Gazelka’s self-imposed deadline. The peculiarities of legislative rules mean that a “legislative day” at the Capitol doesn’t end until 7 a.m. the next morning, Hortman said.
As Friday melted into Saturday, the mood rose and fell like a school kid in a bouncy house. At 6:30 p.m. on Friday, the governor expressed optimism that “a good chunk of things” were getting done. At 2:30 a.m. Saturday, he said much the same thing.
“It’s pretty healthy right now, where they’re negotiating,” Walz said just before departing the Capitol for the night. “It’s actually working the way it’s supposed to right now.”
Elsewhere, public discussions focused almost exclusively on police-accountability reform, which Democrats insisted was urgently needed in the wake of George Floyd’s death.
On June 18, the House passed Senate File 104, after replacing its language with 22 DFL-sponsored police reforms. The Senate had approved that bill as a standalone use-of-force policy change earlier in the week, along with four other relatively modest policing bills.
At around 8:30 p.m. on June 19, Gazelka, Senate Judiciary Chair Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, and Senate State Government Chair Mary Kiffmeyer unveiled their compromise police-reform proposal. Gazelka called it Republicans’ “one final offer.”
It mostly contained provisions passed in the five Senate bills, but it added one major new offer—a revamped police arbitration system that would send cases to an administrative law judge (ALJ) when parties don’t agree on a neutral arbiter.
Senators were unable to answer, when asked, whether the ALJ would be the final word in such a case or if the judge would, as is customary, only make recommendations to agency leadership. Those rules still have to be written, they said.
“If they’re not interested in this,” Gazelka said of the GOP’s police-legislation offer, “I don’t think personally that they’ll ever be interested in something that we can agree to.”
Democrats, at least those from the Senate, weren’t interested.
“Minor changes can’t fix major problems,” Sen. Jeff Hayden, DFL-Minneapolis, said after GOP senators walked away from the bank of microphones.
“Our government continues to be complicit to the killing of Black men, in broad daylight by officers in uniforms, and that must come to an end,” Hayden said, reading from prepared remarks. “Nothing that the Senate Republicans have offered will stop another Black person from being killed.”
House Democrats paid no heed to Gazelka’s “one final offer” comment.
At around 12:15 a.m., they met with reporters to roll out their police-bill counteroffer. It agreed to nine Senate provisions, but insisted on retaining seven of their own—including a banning “warrior-styled” police training and ending the statute of limitations on police wrongful death cases.
As an olive branch, Democrats agreed to abandon—for now—their hopes of giving the attorney general original jurisdiction over fatal police encounters, or of restoring the vote to felons upon release from prison.
Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, is the House Public Safety chair whose committee ushered the sweeping police reform package onto the House floor. He called the AG’s police-prosecution authority “a big deal” and pledged he would continue pursuing it.
“I don’t want to let it go,” he said. “But the Senate was not comfortable at all with that at this point.”
The DFL House press conference—the last public statements from lawmakers before the Senate adjourned at dawn Saturday—wrapped up at 12:40 a.m. Saturday. At that point, leaders were still guardedly upbeat about the special session’s prospects for success—though they also insisted that the Legislature would have to keep working longer.
House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, said early Saturday that the two sides were working toward agreement on sending the $841 million in federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) money to local governments. A GOP-priority tax bill and a bonding bill also were being discussed, as were the police reforms, he said.
But Democrats complicated what had been a negotiated deal to distribute the CARES Act funds, when they tossed Walz’s $146 million supplemental budget proposal on top of it. The governor said that move made sense because the two pots of money would work closely together.
Gazelka said he tried to steer the sides toward compromise. A late deal was struck that would trim the supplemental request back to $58 million—the amount the executive branch has saved with its hiring freeze. Hortman said early Saturday said that a deal on that package was “pretty darned close.” (A bonding bill, on the other hand, was “not so close,” she said.)
After House DFLers walked away from reporters at 12:45 a.m. Saturday, the Capitol went quiet. Lawmakers either retreated to negotiations or—as Gazelka said he did—turned in for brief naps. Others, including Mariani, could be seen hanging out in the Capitol corridors.
There was still no news by 2:30 a.m., when Walz spoke to the last five journalists still hanging around. There, he once again expressed optimism that things would work out for the best and turned in for the night.
It’s not clear what prompted Gazelka to convene the Senate just after 5 a.m. Saturday to call off the special session. He did accuse the governor of undermining the process overnight, apparently by pressuring DFLers not to separate his supplemental budget from the CARES Act bill.
He also expressed frustration at the DFL counteroffer on police reform. “We’re not days away from some of the requests that the House wanted,” Gazelka said. “We are a session away.”
When Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent, DFL-Woodbury, offered a motion to extend the special session until Monday noon, to give lawmakers time to rest and wrap up any doable deals, Gazelka urged members to vote no.
“If the governor had not been twisting arms throughout the night, I would give hope for that,” Gazelka said. “But because of the undermining of the process here, I am not interested in doing that.”
A brief Senate floor debate followed. Sen. Patricia Torres Ray, DFL-Minneapolis, said it was irresponsible to leave without passing the policing changes her community demanded.
“We are ready to vote, we are ready to do what the entire country wants us to do,” she said. “But the majority is stopping us from doing that work. We want the country to know that. We want the country to understand what is happening in Minnesota today.”
That drew a sharp rebuke from Sen. Gary Dahms, R-Redwood Falls.
“Instead of standing up and snarling and being aggressive and talking about what we’ve done or should’ve done,” he said, “think about what you could’ve done that you didn’t do. If you did try to do it, unfortunately, you didn’t do a very good job.”
Shortly thereafter, the Senate voted 35-32 to adjourn sine die.
“We are not walking away from Minnesota,” Gazelka said. “We are resisting a governor that has been undermining the process.”
About half an hour later, the House followed suit. Without the Senate in operation, Winkler said, there was nothing else that the House could accomplish.
As the smoke cleared Saturday afternoon, Walz spoke one final time to reporters, where he was asked about the nature of the arm-twisting he allegedly engaged in. He replied that his expectations were clearly known throughout the special session.
“If the arm-twisting was, ‘Don’t adjourn until you actually get the work done,’ yeah, I would twist arms on that,” Walz said. “But it’s pretty insulting, I think, to make the case that these legislators can’t think for themselves and can’t make their own decisions.”
Special Session 2020, Round 2, likely will start in about three weeks.