Special session talk comes with political pitfalls

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The 10th Ave. bridge in downtown Minneapolis was reopened to traffic Friday, more than four weeks after the 35W bridge collapsed.
MPR Photo/Roseanne Pereira

Within days of the I-35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis, Gov. Pawlenty was talking about the need for a special session to address transportation issues. He also dropped his opposition to a gas tax increase as a way to pay for roads and bridges.

The recent flooding in southeastern Minnesota provided even more reason for lawmakers to return to the State Capitol. But Pawlenty still hasn't reached the prior agreement with DFL leaders that he says is necessary for calling a special session.

Special session likely
Gov. Tim Pawlenty and legislative leaders announced on Aug. 22 they were close to agreement on an agenda for a special session this fall. But they still haven't finalized the plans.
MPR Photo/Tom Scheck

"I think there are some very major trust issues," said Larry Jacobs, a political scientist at the University of Minnesota.

Jacobs says the trust issues between the governor and legislators have been lingering from the end of the 2007 regular session, when Pawlenty vetoed DFL-backed bills on bonding, taxes and transportation.

"You don't have a kind of breakdown that we saw in the spring -- where the governor vetoed essentially the DFL agenda, and the entire spring's work went down the tubes -- without there being some very major meltdowns in terms of trust," Jacobs said.

Still, Jacobs is encouraged to see the two sides talking and trying to find common ground for a special session. Jacobs says neither party will look good if they can't reach an agreement.

"Each of them is going to spin it any way they want," Jacobs said. "But the reality is there is wide recognition in Minnesota that the Legislature and the governor need to act. The governor has said this. And the the failure to do so will really hurt both the Republicans and the Democrats."

But a runaway special session could have similar repercussions. That's why the governor is insisting on a pre-agreed, narrow agenda.

"I think there are some very major trust issues."

David Jennings served as Republican speaker of the Minnesota House in 1985. Jennings, who is now superintendent of the Chaska school district, says an uncontrolled special session would make the governor and legislators look bad.

"They may draw some distinctions between the governor and the Legislature. But I think the average person out there just has the feeling that they don't understand why these guys can't get along and just get the business done, and why there has to be all this commotion all the time," Jennings said. "So, if a special session is called and it doesn't go well and becomes embarrassing, I think that spills over on everybody."

DFL leaders are proposing to use the special session to revisit bills Gov. Pawlenty vetoed earlier this year. That includes a transportation bill that raises the gas tax, sales tax and other fees. Pawlenty says the strategy is not constructive and doesn't address emergency needs.

Roger Moe, a former DFL Senate majority leader, says he understands the governor's concern if Democrats simply want to pass the same bills.

"If, however, they are saying, 'Let's take these bills that we passed, let's begin negotiations off of them. And governor, tell us what you didn't like and what you think we should add to this that we didn't add,' then that seems like a reasonable place to start," said Moe. "And I only say that simply because you have to start someplace. You have to start with some proposal."

Moe is also predicting political fallout if a special session is not held. In the wake of the floods and bridge collapse, Moe says the public is expecting a transportation bill to come out of the special session.

"We all know that something has to be done," Moe said. "It's rare that you have these catastrophes like this, that kind of move an issue to the center stage. And even if that doesn't get the ball rolling, I think there's going to be a sense that the institution somehow can't respond."

The governor and legislative leaders have said a one-day special session would work best after Labor Day. Both sides entered the holiday weekend without reaching an agreement and with no meetings planned. But negotiations could pick up again this week.

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