Session begins just as it ended
The 2016 session began by the drop of a gavel at noon Tuesday, March 8. The beginning was marked by partisanship and controversy reminiscent of 2015.
The 2015 session ended with a loud outcry from DFL members as Speaker Kurt Daudt (R – Crown) rammed a Jobs and Energy bill through just seconds before the mandated midnight ending of the session. DFL members demanded to have a copy of the 93 page bill, shouting to the Speaker. No hard copies were available, it was stated that an e-mail of the bill had been sent and turmoil erupted on the floor. The Speaker immediately took the roll call on the bill among the shouting. Many of the members did not vote, but it passed 75-9. Immediately the Speaker adjourned the session, the midnight constitutional deadline having arrived.
Further controversy ended the 2015 legislative track record with a special session to finish their work. However, no Tax bill or Transportation bill evolved out of that effort either.
This session’s rancor started when Senate DFL leadership moved to remove much of the jurisdiction of the Senate Agriculture, Environment and Jobs Finance committee from Chairman David Tomassoni and give it to Sen. John Marty (DFL- Roseville) with the creation of a new division of Senate Finance. The switch transferred jurisdiction of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, the Board of Soil and Water and several energy accounts within the Department of Commerce to Marty. The move was brought about because of pressure from pro-environmental senators and environmental lobbyists. “Inside baseball” observers at the Capitol believe the pressure was strong enough to threaten the future of Sen. Tom Bakk’s (DFL-Virginia) status as majority leader.
To many, the shift shows the increasing grip that the environmental community has on the Senate DFL. It is seen as potentially very detrimental to the interests of much of agriculture as Marty has a track record generally seen as opposed to many of the positions supported by most production agriculture sectors in the state. Marty has chief authored separate pieces of legislation to ban antibiotic use for livestock, require GMO labeling on foods containing GMOs, sponsor Gov. Mark Dayton’s 50 foot riparian buffer strip proposal and strengthen MPCA’s powers over CAFO’s and feedlots. Indeed, at his first hearing last Thursday, Marty brought a bill to reinstate the MPCA citizens board, which was eliminated in last year’s special session. It passed on a 7 to 4 party line vote.
In response to the committee change, Senate Republicans challenged the move on the Senate floor by offering an amendment to a Senate Resolution relating to the Senate committee schedule. The amendment would have reinstated those jurisdictional areas transferred to Marty back to Tomassoni. The amendment was challenged as being non-germane. The President of the Senate ruled the amendment out of order and a challenge to the President’s ruling was voted on by the Senate body. The vote ended in a tie and therefore the effort to return jurisdiction to Tomassoni failed. Legislators often argue that these are procedural votes on points of parliamentary procedures, not votes on the issue itself, but in the end the affect is the same.
Five Democrats voted with all of the Republicans on the vote. They were Sens. Kent Eken (Twin Valley), Vicki Jensen (Owatanna), Lyle Koenen (Clara City), LeRoy Stumpf (Plummer), and Tomassoni. All other DFL senators voted on the other side.
In the House there was more confrontation on the first day that brought equal drama. An issue which earlier in the year had gotten a call by Gov. Dayton to create a special session was that of extending unemployment benefits for unemployed mine workers. The issue was very important to iron range legislators, particularly Senate Majority Leader Bakk. He promised action on the first day of session. The Senate did pass a clean bill and sent it to the House for immediate, first day action. The House Republicans, however, added a provision that provided for unemployment tax reform. A procedural vote to allow immediate consideration of the bill was then stalled as House DFL members resisted the addition of the tax provision and the bill did not proceed.
Ramifications of the day’s events played out further that evening as an angered Bakk addressed the state Chamber of Commerce at the annual Chamber dinner. The Chamber dinner is an annual event held on the first evening of session when Chamber of Commerce members from all over the state come to St. Paul to meet with legislators. While addressing the event, an agitated Bakk indicated his disappointment with the Chamber, seemingly blaming them for that day’s unemployment compensation snafu on the House floor. He stated that if they wanted to play that way, to “bring it on”.
So we start as we ended last session, partisanship and controversy abound.