Things got weird deep into the second day of Minnesota’s “one-day” special session, easily the most absurd in state history. In truth, the train was off the rails before it left the station.
As they emerged with less than an hour before the May 22 midnight deadline, Republican leaders and Gov. Mark Dayton congratulated each other for their hard work negotiating in the “past 48 hours.” No one mentioned their failure to agree on a new state budget during the previous 140 days.
It was in this convivial moment that Bernie Hesse, lobbyist for the United Food and Commercial Workers union, knew something was wrong.
“They rolled [Dayton],” Hesse says. “We knew we were fucked. Whenever someone says, ‘You’re a great bargainer,’ you know you’ve been fleeced.”
Said fleecing, much of it done in the middle of the night behind closed doors, took different forms. “Preemption,” which would block Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Duluth from raising the minimum wage or enacting other worker-friendly policies, was slapped like a big ugly bow on an unrelated bill to fund public pensions and family leave. Another spending bill carries an explicit prohibition to halt the banning of plastic bags, weeks before a ban would’ve started in Minneapolis. (None of the Republicans who voted for it actually live in Minneapolis or St. Paul, though many of their masters at the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce do.)
A tax cut bill carried provisions to block a single dollar being spent on light rail. Protections to stop internet providers from selling your browser history were stricken.
A health-care funding bill halved scheduled raises for home health-care workers, who bathe, feed, and keep alive sick people who have no one else.
Lefties rallied to the cause, telling Dayton to veto everything and start over. And why not? It’s not as if things in Minnesota could get any messier.
In the last 20 years, Minnesota has held 16 special sessions, about half as many as it had in the 138 years before that. Two missed deadlines have caused the government to shut down. Political scientist David Schultz calls this perpetual gridlock our “new normal.”
If your boss — in the case of legislators, the people of Minnesota — gave you one project to complete every other year, and you consistently failed, you’d lose your job.
Minnesota’s elected officials consistently can’t pass a clean budget on time. Not even now, with a $1.65 billion surplus, the biggest in Minnesota history.
Ever the Chamber-of-Commerce-maid, the GOP wants to hemorrhage tax revenues via corporate property tax cuts, slashing the estate tax (which affects only the super-rich and their heirs), and capping the cigarette tax.
“You would’ve thought it would’ve been much easier to resolve the differences this year,” says Rep. Lyndon Carlson (DFL-Crystal), the longest-serving member in House history. “The [GOP] majority came in lowballing their funding targets, and putting all their eggs — or a large percentage of their eggs, so to speak — in the tax bill.”
Republicans wanted to count those eggs before they hatched. A sneaky line in a state agencies bill says the Department of Revenue wouldn’t get its $153 million budget until the day after Dayton signed the tax cuts. The tax bill became a ransom note.
With its estate, corporate property, and tobacco moves, this GOP bill would cut $450 million in tax revenues over the next four years — and much more down the line. What will have to be cut as a result? No one can say. But the Legislature’s history tells us when and where it will happen: after midnight, and inside someone’s locked office.
Dayton fears for the future, but will have to swallow some of these poison pills just to get a budget.* This is what happens when you careen in the dark, governing by the light of emergency flares. Eventually, sleep-deprived and exasperated, the do-gooders wilt, and the citizenry wakes up to learn they’ve been mugged.
“At some point,” says former GOP Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch, “the people of Minnesota just have to demand it. Enough with special sessions, enough with running down the clock.”
Koch says it was different when she and Republican majorities clashed with Dayton in the shadows of a $5 billion deficit and a shaky economy. No one wanted to get caught holding the knife. This year they’ve got a surplus and low unemployment. Koch’s “a little surprised” they couldn’t manage.
Hesse isn’t. By operating this way, lawmakers can shield their moves and motives. “This is by design, not to have transparency,” he says. “The average guy isn’t going to care what happens at 3 in the morning.”
Not until next year. Early Wednesday, after the House passed its massive tax cut, the Senate discovered the bill had forgotten an underserved community: the National Football League. The Senate hastily tacked on an amendment to allow bars to stay open until 4 a.m. over Super Bowl weekend, an NFL-imposed requirement for hosting the big game.
This is who gets rescued in the dark of night: the NFL, big tobacco, internet companies, plastic bags.
The absurdity of the Not-Great Special Session of 2017 found a new valley early one morning. A Democrat pressed Rep. Abigail Whelan (R-Anoka), trying to get her on the record about keeping open a loophole that protects Minnesotans who park riches in offshore bank accounts.
Whelan cited her fatigue and lamented the “games we play [at the Capitol],” then pivoted awkwardly to religion.
“There is actual joy to be found in Jesus Christ,” Whelan said out of nowhere. “Jesus loves you all.”
Aside from the fact that Jesus would’ve paid his taxes, her point was probably well taken by her colleagues. Jesus forgives sinners. It says so right there in the contract.
Voters have made no such deal.
Note: After this column went to press, Dayton agreed to sign all of the budget bills and the tax cut bill, though he line-item vetoed funding for the state House and Senate, saying he would withold those funds until Republicans would renegotiate their tax cuts. A resolution remains unclear.
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