The conventional wisdom from the start was that Session 2012 would be a short one. A healthy budget surplus plus newly redrawn legislative districts meant less work to be done at the Capitol and more to be done back home, where some lawmakers will face intra-party endorsement challenges and others have to get to know a daunting amount of new territory.
But word began circulating recently that many Republican senators were interested in accelerating their already ambitious adjournment date by nearly a month, from April 30 — the agreed-upon target of both GOP caucuses — to April 5, a day currently scheduled as the start of lawmakers’ long Easter/Passover break.
Signs of a sudden push toward adjournment are everywhere, according to Capitol lobbyists. Major fiscal packages generally reserved for the final weeks of the session were dropped ahead of schedule into both chambers last week. House and Senate Republicans pushed through omnibus tax bills, and the House bonding package is now in the mix while the ink dries on the Senate’s version.
By lobbyist Tom Hanson’s account, what was supposed to be a policy deadline on Friday was suddenly being treated like the finance deadline. Policy bills also got a boost. A constitutional amendment to require photo identification at the polls passed through both chambers a week earlier than originally anticipated.
April 5 a ‘casual’ target
Senate Majority Leader Dave Senjem acknowledges the April 5 adjournment date as a “casual” goal, but a goal nonetheless. “I don’t know how real it is,” he said last week. “If we can push and accelerate this thing a little bit, then maybe we can do that. We would like to do that.”
It’s not hard to see why. The Republican Senate caucus has faced an onslaught of bad press in recent weeks, the most visible being a looming gender discrimination lawsuit against the Senate from former staffer Michael Brodkorb. Brodkorb made his first step toward a lawsuit last week, holding a news conference to announce that he had filed a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
As part of the threatened litigation, Brodkorb’s attorneys are vowing to depose anyone involved in Capitol affairs to prove their client was treated differently because of his gender. He also added another layer to the legal thicket: Brodkorb held out the possibility of suing Secretary of the Senate Cal Ludeman for defamation over claims that Brodkorb was trying to “extort” a payment from the Senate.
In addition, GOP Sen. Geoff Michel faces an ethics complaint from DFLers over the handling of Brodkorb’s extramarital affair with former Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch. (The complaint was scheduled to be heard Friday after this edition of Capitol Report went to press; visit politicsinmn.com for the latest developments.)
And the fissures in Senate GOP ranks are becoming clearer by the day. Shortly after Senjem pronounced the so-called right-to-work constitutional amendment dead owing to a lack of votes in both chambers, a rump caucus of 10 GOP senators held a Capitol news conference last week urging their leaders to bring the bill to the floor for a vote.
“No more good can come of this place,” a veteran DFL lobbyist said last week. “They want to get out and campaign. They don’t want to make any more mistakes.”
Republican Sen. John Howe has sensed an appetite to go home since the redistricting maps were released. “I can only imagine,” he said, “that if you were one of those people who lost 75 percent of your district, or if you’re running against another seated legislator, you’d probably feel like you want to get out of here.”
But he adds that the specter of Brodkorb in the Senate is likely adding to the stress of the session for a handful of members: “It’s not something that is being said and it’s not being talked about, but I don’t doubt that those pressures are there.”
Longtime DFL Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe, who is now a lobbyist, has a simpler explanation for the sudden adjournment fever. “It’s not hard to see,” he said. “When it’s 80 degrees in March and the trees start budding, suddenly everyone wants to get out of here.” Former DFL Senate staffer turned lobbyist Beau Berentson notes that challengers around the state are already taking advantage of the unseasonably warm weather to start door-knocking.
And all the while Republican lawmakers, tasked with defending majorities in both chambers this fall, are stuck in committee hearings and floor sessions.
Numerous issues left to settle
Lawmakers’ desire to go home early has been met with widespread skepticism from Capitol lobbyists. The Minnesota Legislature hasn’t adjourned sine die before April 5 since 1996, according to the Minnesota Legislative Reference Library. The Legislature has adorned in mid-May or later for the last 13 consecutive sessions.
Significant roadblocks stand in the way of early adjournment, the biggest being the passage of a 2012 bonding package. The dual bills released in the House last Monday — $280 million for conventional infrastructure and asset preservation projects, and $220 million for a four-year Capitol renovation program — falls far short of Gov. Mark Dayton’s proposed $775 million bill, and more critically, it has fallen flat with Senate Republicans.
The key point of contention involves the House’s inclusion of nearly the entire $241 million in recommended Capitol restoration funds. In his capacity as head of the Senate Capital Investment Committee, Senjem says he will not dedicate as much money to the Capitol project.
Even the voter photo ID amendment, on which the two chambers agree in most respects, will have to head to a conference committee to work out language differences between Rep. Mary Kiffmeyer’s bill and the companion brought by Sen. Scott Newman.
Senate GOP spokesman Steve Sviggum points to four goals that the leadership wants to see through before gaveling out: the photo ID amendment, the K-12 shift payback bill, a tax omnibus bill and a bonding package.
That’s not exactly the same list of priorities spelled out by House GOP spokeswoman Jodi Boyne, who also lists key health and human services and education reform bills that originated as part of the House GOP’s Reform 2.0 package. They include the so-called “last in, first out” bill that is currently in conference committee, a bill to speed up the environmental permitting process, and an omnibus health and human services policy reform bill.
“The House has a different culture,” Sviggum said. “They’re going in a different direction on a couple of bills than we are going in, and there is worry, but also you hope common sense minds will come together with the best interests and ideas in mind.”
“It’s still kind of pie-in-the-sky,” said veteran Capitol lobbyist John Knapp, “but with everything that is going on in the Senate, I would think the Senate would really want to get out in particular.” He added that the atmosphere at the Capitol appears far more combative than collegial these days: “These people just don’t like each other very much. They don’t like being around each other.”