Gov. Mark Dayton said Wednesday he is open to calling a special legislative session in early June if legislative leaders agree to his terms for bringing legislators back to St. Paul.
“I am going to take the weekend to think about what requirements I would have to call a special session,” Dayton said at a news conference. “I am open to it, but I have my own requirements.”
Legislative leaders have asked Dayton to call a special session after a last-ditch $1 billion statewide public works and transportation package imploded in the final minutes of the session, which ended at midnight Sunday. The failure to pass the measure doomed new buildings, roads and bridge improvements in nearly every corner of the state — projects that local officials and residents have counted on and often have spent years lobbying for.
The governor said that he didn’t want to start negotiating his terms in public, but that he is adamant that any agreement must include a new building for health sciences at the University of Minnesota. Dayton had spent the 11-week session insisting that $66 million for the project was a top priority. In the end, legislative leaders left out the money for the building in their last-minute proposal.
Dayton said House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, told him there wasn’t room in the $1 billion spending package for the U building.
But with Dayton’s newfound political leverage, the building is back in play. “We’ll deal with that in its own good time,” the governor said.
Only Dayton can call a special session, but legislators decide when it ends, which is why governors and legislators frequently make ironclad agreements on the terms of a special session. The governor said he plans to send a letter to legislative leaders outlining his requirements for a special session early next week.
Light rail a sticking point
Daudt and other GOP leaders on Wednesday issued their call for a special session at a news conference at Hwy. 12 in Maple Plain, a stretch of highway that would have received $15 million for safety upgrades in the failed bill.
The span of highway is among the deadliest in the state; 23 people have died on this road in the past five years, according to a House GOP news release.
“Without swift action, Minnesotans will be left waiting to see funding for important public infrastructure improvements,” Daudt said. “I strongly urge Governor Dayton to act in the best interest of the state and promptly call a one-day special session so we can move forward on projects like Highway 12.”
Dayton said he was surprised by the GOP’s sudden devotion to the road project. He noted that the Republican senator who represents the district, Sen. Dave Osmek, voted against a similar DFL-led measure that would have funded the Hwy. 12 project. The measure failed by one vote.
The challenge for Dayton will be to find agreement with Republicans on one priority he is considering including in a possible special-session agenda: funding for the Southwest light-rail line, which would connect downtown Minneapolis to Eden Prairie.
Daudt and other Republicans have steadfastly criticized the proposed line, saying that it is an inefficient way to move people and that the state should instead focus on roads and bridges.
Daudt signaled that it would be difficult to win agreement from his members on a special session if Dayton and other DFL leaders make a push for the light-rail line. Daudt highlighted a DFL amendment to the failed bonding bill that would have allowed Hennepin County to provide $135 million for the project, money that is crucial to securing nearly $900 million in federal funding.
The speaker said that last-second amendment doomed the overall package of projects.
“A group of Senate Democrats stood in the way of funding for critical road and bridge infrastructure like Highway 12 earlier this week, and it’s time to fix their mistake,” Daudt said in his statement. “Attempts to inject unnecessary political games into the process like the one that got us into this mess would be a disservice to the Minnesotans we represent.”
Dayton hammered Republican legislators for their outspoken opposition to the light-rail line, which he sees as a campaign ploy by Republicans determined to show voters how they were tough on new spending. “That’s irresponsible, and a failure of governance,” he said.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said that he would continue to push for light-rail funding and that he supported more money for higher education. “We have been and will continue to be advocates for maintaining our institutions and ensuring that higher educating in Minnesota is affordable and provides outstanding educational opportunities,” Bakk said.
House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, agreed that Hwy. 12 needs funding, but he blamed GOP leaders for the lack of passage, calling it “frustrating that Republican legislators did not even propose a bonding bill until just one week ago. Procrastination and brinkmanship don’t build a single mile of road. Minnesotans are tired of it, and they should be.”
Pressure is building
Interest groups have begun pressuring Dayton and legislators to strike a deal, including the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce.
“We are encouraged by discussions to have transportation funding included in the agenda for a special session,” Chamber President Doug Loon said in a statement. “There’s no more important ‘unfinished business’ from the regular session than adopting a comprehensive package for sustained and strategic funding of roads, bridges and transit.”
U President Eric Kaler reiterated his plea for the new building, “and I ask Governor Dayton to call a special session to finish this important work.”
Staff writer Josephine Marcotty contributed to this report.