Fetching ideas were flying as the 2015 Legislature convened last week. Free tuition at two-year colleges! Tax breaks for small businesses! No gas tax hike! A new kind of gas tax with a name that doesn’t win an exclamation point — a “gross receipts tax.”
For the regulars who would be clustered in the corridors if the Capitol wasn’t mostly closed for construction, the most tantalizing idea wafted from the Senate on opening day: Let’s skip the 2016 session.
Visions of winter vacations suddenly danced in lobbyists’ heads. OK — journalists’ heads, too.
It’s understandable that wishful thinking about no session in 2016 would spring from the Senate. The Senate majority, which has offices in the Capitol, has been much disrupted by the Capitol’s renovation, losing about half of its space. Those woes have only begun. Senators lose their Capitol homes entirely come June, and they’re having difficulty convincing nearby property owners that they’d be a desirable tenant for seven months — or more — until their new office building north of the Capitol is ready for occupants. Construction on the new building was delayed by a lawsuit last year. Last week’s bitter cold had senators muttering about the likelihood of more delay and trouble in 2016, when even the Senate chamber will be off-limits.
Both Senate DFL Majority Leader Tom Bakk and GOP Minority Leader David Hann claimed credit for originating the no-session notion. Its true parentage is uncertain. But by midweek, Hann was the bigger booster of the idea, which he tied to his party’s predilections about government in general.
“There’s a 90 percent chance we can do this,” Hann told the 1,800 VIPs assembled at the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce’s annual session-starting dinner on Wednesday. “We have too much government. Let’s take a break.”
Bakk countered: “Well, this is my idea, and I also think there’s zero chance it can be done.”
I’d peg the chances closer to Bakk’s number than to Hann’s. That’s because I chatted recently with Jack Davies, the former state senator and appellate judge who in 1972 drafted the constitutional amendment that allowed the Legislature to meet every year.
(Permit a historical interlude: Annual sessions were the norm in pioneer days, but they ended during the administration of Gov. John S. Pillsbury. By nearly a 2-to-1 margin, voters approved a switch to odd-year biennial sessions in 1877. Capitol lore has it that the railroads had grown weary of having to buy the Legislature every year. The 1877 voters evidently shared that some of that sentiment.)
Davies said he would be “utterly amazed” if the Legislature could do without a lawmaking session in 2016. Already in 1972, he said, it was plain to both parties that the Legislature’s workload was too heavy to carry in a single four-month session. His amendment passed with 55 percent of the vote.
In 1972, Minnesota was home to 3.8 million people and state government had just waded deeper into school and local-government funding. Today’s state population is closing in on 5.5 million people who look to state government for much more. The last 40 years saw the state’s role expand in health care, long-term care, the courts, student financial aid, special education, preschool education, environmental protection and more.
It also saw the rise of regularly scheduled state budget forecasts and the political pressures they bring. It’s hard to imagine a forecast in November 2015 showing either a big surplus or deficit without the Legislature meeting soon thereafter to act on it.
Similarly, it’s hard to conceive of the state having to wait two years to fix the inevitable mistakes that the 2015 Legislature will make. Error correction has been a prominent feature in many even-year sessions, including last year’s.
Davies, who served 14 years before 1972 and 10 years thereafter, had one more good thing to say about even-year sessions: Some of the Legislature’s best work has been done then. “Any creative legislation seems to be passed in the second year of the biennium,” he said. “It seems that you have to be introduced to the ideas in the first year and take some time to reflect on them. You come back smarter the next year.”
Skipping a 2016 session would cause particular trouble for the Legislature’s capital investment committees. They operate on a calendar that includes extensive tours in the odd-year fall, informing them about projects competing for bonding dollars in the even-year spring. It didn’t surprise me when the Senate’s capital investment chair, Sen. LeRoy Stumpf, said he’ll oppose canceling the 2016 regular session. It would be “a disaster” for sound stewardship of the state’s building projects, he said.
All of that augurs for the Legislature meeting in 2016 — but not necessarily “as usual.” Legislative leaders could treat the regular session as if it were a special session, in which prior agreement on an agenda and duration is reached on a handshake basis. They could conduct more committee business during the interim, optimizing the use of the few hearing rooms still available.
Legislators often talk a good game about finishing the even-year session by Easter, and actually did so three times in the 1990s. In 2016, the Legislature might upend that notion. It could convene right after Easter — which falls on March 27 next year — and still wrap up its work by the constitutional deadline, May 23.
That would allow more time to finish the new Senate office building — and ample time for winter vacations.
Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at firstname.lastname@example.org.