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Gov. Dayton: Special session is dead. Again.

ST. PAUL -- The second life of Minnesota's proposed special legislative session lasted just over two weeks. Gov. Mark Dayton declared a special session dead in August after the two sides were unable to agree on funding for the Southwest Light Rai...

ST. PAUL - The second life of Minnesota’s proposed special legislative session lasted just over two weeks.

Gov. Mark Dayton declared a special session dead in August after the two sides were unable to agree on funding for the Southwest Light Rail line. But when Dayton ordered a backup path to fund Southwest Light Rail, he agreed to open up special session talks again.

A Sept. 9 meeting between Dayton and Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt led to negotiations between staff for both parties to iron out the details. A deal seemed close, with only a dispute about how specific the Legislature should be about specific transportation projects it wanted built.

But that even issue - and split political imperatives among Minnesota’s political leaders - proved insurmountable. In a letter to Daudt released Friday, Sept. 23, Dayton said he had “reluctantly concluded that the time for agreement on a Special Session has expired.”

Daudt blamed “Governor Dayton and Democrats” for “walking away from bills the Governor acknowledges are good for Minnesota.”

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“House Republicans have initiated every meeting and discussion over the past two months to pass tax relief and funding for critical infrastructure projects like Highway 23, Highway 14, and countless others throughout the state,” he said.

There were two major agenda items for a special session: pass a $300 million tax bill stripped of a drafting error that led Dayton to veto it, and pass a measure to borrow $1 billion or more for infrastructure projects.

The tax bill, a top priority of the House GOP majority,  also contained a break for the proposed Major League Soccer stadium in St. Paul.

But the infrastructure bill was more troublesome. Lawmakers solved the money issue - Dayton’s demands that Republicans add new funding for his priorities, including upgrades at the state’s psychiatric hospital in St. Peter. But a process issue proved intractable. Dayton objected on principle to the infrastructure bill’s earmarking of money for specific projects, and was backed up in this by a letter signed by a bipartisan range of current and former chairs of the Legislature’s transportation committees. Many lawmakers like earmarking because it lets them guarantee funding for key projects in their home districts.

House leaders agreed to a compromise that would give the Department of Transportation more flexibility instead of dictating every project, but Dayton’s letter said that “remains unacceptable.”

Dayton cited this disagreement as the final straw, along with a question of timeline: special session discussions have dragged on since late May, and there are only 46 days between Friday and the election.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, told the Pioneer Press that he had “told the Speaker to take the earmarks out for a couple weeks.”

Playing a role in the stalemate is different political incentives at the Capitol. Both the Senate’s DFL majority and the House’s Republican majority badly want a special session so their incumbent lawmakers can point to the tax and infrastructure bills as accomplishments in their coming reelection campaigns. But running against a do-nothing Legislature can help the minority party in each chamber defeat incumbents and become the majority themselves.

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Daudt “particularly” blamed House Minority Leader Paul Thissen for the failure to reach a deal.

“Thissen and House Democrats seem to be putting their own selfish political interests before those of Minnesota families,” Daudt said.

Thissen, a DFLer from Minneapolis, said it was “House Republicans that didn’t really want to get a special session done.”

“This Legislature proved it can’t function. I think they proved that back in May,” Thissen said. “I don’t think we gain anything (politically) by not getting a special session.”

This matters because of the Legislature’s rules and customs. Passing an infrastructure bill requires super-majorities - so votes from the minority party are needed. And though Dayton has the sole power to call a special session, by longstanding tradition special sessions don’t happen unless the majority and minority leaders of each chamber agree on what bills will be approved in the session.

The lack of a special session continues to have impact around the state. St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman this week vetoed a proposed tax increase intended to replace $3 million St. Paul would have received in the tax bill.

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