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Governor, legislative leaders want disaster-relief-only special session, but will they get it?

Special session: No shenanigans, please

Republican Sen. Sean Nienow has bill language ready in the event the state Supreme Court rules in favor of Secretary of State Mark Ritchie’s move to change the titles of the marriage and photo identification ballot questions. Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher

Governor, legislative leaders want disaster-relief-only special session, but will they get it?

Publicly, Gov. Mark Dayton’s administration and GOP leaders of the Legislature seem to be playing nice as they set in motion a summer political reunion dedicated to providing relief to parts of northeastern Minnesota struck by severe flooding last month.

The DFL governor has been meeting regularly with GOP House Speaker Kurt Zellers, Republican Senate Majority Leader Dave Senjem and DFL leaders about the parameters of a likely one-day special session in August. By their accounts, the agenda will almost certainly start and end with disaster relief.

For practical purposes — and despite the proximity of the looming fall election — the usually warring parties have to work together on a single-purpose session: Both sides have to agree on an agenda for the session in order to sway two-thirds of the state’s 201 lawmakers to vote to suspend the rules and put the Legislature into an emergency session. The end game is to pass flooding relief as soon as possible. Absent a rule suspension, state law requires a series of procedural motions and waiting periods to pass legislation through both chambers, a process that could last for as long as five days.

“There’s not going to be a huge appetite to take a week to do anything,” GOP Sen. David Hann said. “The only things that are likely to get done are things related to the emergency.”
But behind the scenes, some other Senate Republicans are eyeing the special session as an opportunity to take up a handful of other matters, including legislation to circumvent Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie’s move to change the ballot titles on two GOP-passed constitutional amendments.

Ballot titles, school shift could come up

Republican Sen. Sean Nienow has draft bill language ready for the special session in the event the state Supreme Court rules in favor of Ritchie’s move to change the titles of the marriage and photo identification ballot questions.

Ritchie recently changed the names of both titles and got approval from Attorney General Lori Swanson, citing Minnesota statutes that date all the way back to 1919 and give the secretary of state the authority to title ballot questions. But Republicans are crying foul, and have taken them to court over the issue. They say Ritchie’s move was a political maneuver to favor the anti-amendment campaigns, and Nienow doesn’t necessarily want the Supreme Court to have the last word on the matter.

In the event the Supreme Court rules in Ritchie’s favor, the bill would essentially change the name of both ballot titles back to what Republicans had originally proposed. “That’s clearly not the intent of the constitutional framers,” Nienow said of Ritchie’s move to change the title. “They wanted this to rest with the Legislature.”

One problem: The bill would have to be signed by Dayton, who would likely frown upon any move during special session that falls outside of flood relief. Nienow doesn’t think signing the bill should be a problem for the governor. “Ritchie’s changes have gotten lot of heat. Political scientists are saying this language will skew the vote and change the outcome,” he said. “It should not be an issue for the governor to sign this.”

Some Senate Republicans are also interested in adjusting the unpopular school shift payback after the state reported earlier this month that it had finished fiscal year 2012 with $336 million more in revenue than expected. Lawmakers have been eager to pay back the school shift, which grew to more than $2 billion as part of the 2011 budget deficit solution.

“Every group would like to do number of things, but they would have to have a mutual agreement to get it done,” Senate Republican spokesman Steve Sviggum said.

GOP Sen. John Howe also had his eye on a couple of projects that he thought would fit well in the purview of the special session, including a possible $500,000 to $1 million Generic Environmental Impact Statement to help local counties identify and address health and environmental concerns related to silica mining. He also wants lawmakers to set aside funding to improve dangerous intersections in the state.

But Howe says he will abide by the terms of whatever deal legislative leaders and the governor cut regarding the purview of the session. “I’ve made my pitch to the majority leader, speaker and the governor and I will defer to their agreement,” Howe said, adding that he has been meeting with Dayton privately to discuss separate agency movement on a frac sand mining study, and “I’m still going to request that the agencies look into doing that.”

Howe, a freshman Republican senator from Red Wing, said he’s aware of the anger on the right over Ritchie’s move to change the ballot titles, but he would prefer to see that worked out as part of a global agreement ahead of the special session.

“But who knows? You have a body of 201 legislators,” Howe said. “And everybody has their own take on things, and everybody has an opportunity to bring forth what they think is important.”

Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk says he’s not too surprised that there is some movement from Senate Republicans to bring other items into the agenda. “Senjem clearly wants a disaster-relief-only session, but he has a pretty unruly caucus,” Bakk said. “Someone could offer something. I just don’t think [Senjem] has the control that Zellers probably has.”

But Bakk notes that the Senate is “almost irrelevant” in its role in the special session. The bill, which will likely include some bonding money, will have to originate in the House chamber. “So the House will send it over, and I assume that will be their only order of business and then they will go home,” he said. “The Senate is in a take it or leave it spot. If they try to amend it, the House is gone, meaning essentially the Republicans in the Senate would be responsible for killing the disaster session.”

FEMA appeal could complicate timing

Non-flood related bills aren’t the only thing complicating the special session.

On Wednesday, Dayton’s administration got word that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had denied the state’s request for federal money to repair private homes and businesses in northeastern Minnesota that were damaged by the floods.  While the denial does not affect a still-pending federal disaster request for help repairing more than $100 million in damage to roads and other public infrastructure, Dayton vowed a swift appeal of their decision.“I believe this was the wrong decision, and I am deeply disappointed,” he said this week. “We will begin working on an appeal immediately.”

That could possibly push the date of the special session back from previous projections, putting it in the last week of August, according to House Minority Leader Paul Thissen. “There has been general agreement that we want to get relief as quickly as possible, but we also want to be as clear as possible on the terms with the federal government,” he said.

Lawmakers also seem to be in disagreement about how they will craft disaster relief legislation. Some have suggested a public working group; others want to go with a standard committee process. Who will be involved in the process is up in the air as well.

Bakk says he has recommended Duluth Sen. Roger Reinert and Sen. Tony Lourey, whose Senate district covers much of the flooded area. On the Senate GOP side, Howe says he has been asked to join a working group, but Sviggum says GOP Sen. Dave Thompson of Lakeville and Transportation Committee Chairman Joe Gimse will be working on the effort.

It’s unclear who will be involved on the House side, but Thissen says representatives from northeastern Minnesota will work to help craft legislation. House Spokesman Jodi Boyne could not be immediately reached for comment on House GOP special session proceedings.

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