Second special session starts without deal on to-do list

House chamber during a special session
After an acrimonious end to a first special session, the Minnesota Legislature returns Monday for another try.
Glen Stubbe | Star Tribune via AP

After an acrimonious end to a first special session, the Minnesota Legislature returns Monday for another try.

The agenda for the open-ended session is expected to be limited and familiar: 

  • A public infrastructure borrowing bill, often called the bonding bill.

  • A set of police accountability measures that gained steam after George Floyd’s killing

  • Some budget and tax measures that didn’t get settled during the Legislature’s regular session or the June special session.

  • A review of steps taken to control the coronavirus, and a debate over how schools conduct classes in the fall.

DFL Gov. Tim Walz had to call lawmakers back to St. Paul because he is tacking another month onto a peacetime emergency related to the coronavirus. He first invoked the executive powers in March and is now on his fourth 30-day extension. He said the authority has made his administration more nimble in addressing COVID-19.

But lawmakers, in particular Republicans, are frustrated by his use of the solo powers. Normally, he’d have to go through the Legislature to take some of the actions he has. There will be efforts to pare his powers back or repeal them all together, but that’s unlikely to occur. Republicans control the Senate and the Democrats run the House, where the governor’s actions have more support.

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There are similar efforts in the House and Senate to reshape police training, outlaw the chokeholds used on Floyd and rework the arbitration process that often makes discipline harder. But the House and Senate proposals for achieving those goals don’t line up.

“There’s a big difference in how Republicans and Democrats approach police reform and accountability, and we’re trying to bridge that gap,” said House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park.

The DFL-led House would go far further to rewrite laws around allowable deadly force, rooting out misconduct and inviting more civilian oversight.

 Hortman said lawmakers are further along than they were at the start of the first special session, but reaching a deal on this will still be complicated.

“What matters to us is accountability,” she said. “If we add more training and we add more rules and regulations and then pat ourselves on the back, we haven’t really changed anything. I think there’s enough training and enough rules and regulations. What we don’t have is accountability.”

Senate Republicans say they’re reluctant to impose more sweeping requirements on all police forces around Minnesota when they argue the biggest problems are in the biggest cities.

The bonding bill could be closer to completion, too.

There’s an apparent agreement that the state would issue about $1.3 billion in general obligation bonds and more than $400 million in other types of debt to pay for public projects around the state. 

That’s a sizable number — not as much as DFLers in the House and the governor had been pushing for but far more than Republicans will usually support. 

Senate Capital Investment Committee Chair David Senjem, R-Rochester, called the bill “huge” and said there’s a reason for that.

“I think there’s a deliberate attitude that things are, the economy is tough out there right now,” Senjem said. “We’re not always going to have a bill this large. But if you’re going to get money into the state of Minnesota and spin the economy to the extent you can with infrastructure spending, now is the time to do it.”

The bill is expected to include money for local roads, wastewater plants, prison upgrades, college campus improvements and more.

It takes three-fifths majorities to get the bill through, so by no means is the plan a slam dunk for passage. 

House Republicans have tied their votes to Walz relinquishing his peacetime emergency authority — something the DFL governor has indicated he won’t do yet.

Once Walz calls the Legislature back, it’s up to lawmakers to decide how long they meet. The first special session ran for a week.