Tightly packed into temporary quarters for a special session, Minnesota’s political leaders scrambled early Saturday to finish voting on nearly half the $42 billion two-year state budget. Their work, started Friday, included a struggle over a controversial spending and policy plan for environmental and agricultural programs, with the House and Senate volleying versions late into the night before it was approved, avoiding a state government shutdown.

It was a long, novel day at the Capitol, with nearly 200 state senators and representatives — a handful were absent — jammed into two committee hearing rooms in the lower level of the State Office Building for the overtime session. Gov. Mark Dayton had called the session Thursday night, summoning lawmakers to vote on replacements for three spending bills he vetoed at the end of last month’s regular session.

Sessions not underneath the Capitol dome have been extremely rare in the building’s 110-year history. The setting was forced by the building’s massive, ongoing renovation, and it left many lawmakers slightly giddy even as they cast weighty votes on billions of dollars in spending and significant policy changes.

“There’s something powerful about all of us being squeezed into this room,” said Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, speaking to House colleagues sitting shoulder to shoulder in the low-ceilinged, fluorescent-lit and poorly ventilated temporary chamber.

“The smell!” an unidentified lawmaker piped up, the close aroma of human bodies evident almost immediately after Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, gaveled the 10 a.m. session to a start.

Making fast work early

Jokes aside, lawmakers quickly approved a $17 billion public schools bill, a $402 million jobs-and-energy bill and a $540 million bill that distributes sales tax proceeds for clean water, natural resources, arts and cultural heritage initiatives.

But there was suspense over the fate of the environmental and agriculture bill that has pitted a coalition of DFL senators against their majority leader and the governor. The bill first failed in the DFL-controlled Senate, then later passed, DFL senators having stripped out several GOP policy priorities from it. Hours later, the House voted to restore them, and after the Senate also gave its approval.

The bill carried Dayton’s last priority from the regular session — a requirement that farmers install natural buffers along lakes, creeks and rivers to block pollutants. To retain that victory, after seeing his preschool and transportation proposals go down to defeat, Dayton was forced to make trade-offs with House Republicans to preserve the buffer language.

Those concessions, which included elimination of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s Citizens’ Board, enraged environmentalists and early in the day some DFLers were ready to fight over them.

In floor speeches, Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, called the bill “environmental vandalism.” Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, called it “a historic step backwards.” The Citizens’ Board was unusual in that it had a determining voice on regulatory decisions, and was seen as a vehicle for greater public involvement in environmental oversight.

A handful of DFL senators who voted against the first environment bill in May switched to supporting it Friday.

They cited the need to compromise and avoid another state government shutdown, in which lack of funding for the Department of Natural Resources could result in no access to state parks come July 1.

“I wasn’t at peace about this bill,” said Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, who voted against the original bill but for its replacement. “But I stand here today in a different place.”

Votes drawn out

Still, the replacement bill went down in a midafternoon vote. The vote was 33 in favor and 32 against, with a handful of senators absent. Bills need 34 votes to pass the 67-member Senate.

Twenty-five DFLers voted against the bill and only 13 voted in favor; among Senate Republicans, 20 supported the bill and seven voted no.

Roll call votes were unusually drawn out, since the temporary quarters lacked the electronic voting boards built into the walls of the House and Senate chambers.

After the bill failed, Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, huddled with fellow senators and top aides in full view of everyone in the temporary chamber to strategize on how to pick up another vote.

In the temporary House quarters, a basement hearing room, lobbyists, reporters, legislative employees and bystanders quickly speculated that Senate leaders would secure at least one vote switch.

When the Senate voted again, the citizens panel was back in the bill and it won 40 votes, six more than needed to pass.

But the House then voted to strip out the Senate’s changes and send the bill back to the Senate, which voted to pass it early Saturday 38-29.

Once that was resolved, so was the fate of a $373 million package of public works projects, to be funded with state bonds. After the Senate vote on the environment bill, the House approved the bonding bill and adjourned. The Senate quickly followed.

 

Partisan jabs

While drama swirled in the normally staid Senate, the often rowdy House was relatively well-behaved.

But debates over a few of the other budget bills prompted some partisan jabs, which, thanks to the physical closeness, provoked collective shudders through the room.

In particular, House Republicans and DFLers bickered over the public schools funding bill that derailed the regular session on its last night, as the two sides fought over total spending. With a nearly $2 billion projected budget surplus this year, Dayton sought a hefty school spending hike, including $350 million to provide universal prekindergarten classes at schools statewide.

Republicans first approved a $400 million school spending increase. Dayton eventually bargained them up to $525 million, but with no money for universal prekindergarten, and a much smaller sprinkling of cash for early learning programs. Most of the new money goes to 2 percent increases in each of the next two years in per-pupil state aid payments to schools.

House Majority Leader Joyce Peppin, R-Rogers, called the universal preschool proposal an “unfunded mandate” and said it was unpopular among many school leaders. Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, likened it to a glorified baby-sitting service.

That irked Democrats, who took turns praising Dayton for pushing Republicans higher on overall education spending. The state budget agreement leaves about $850 million unspent for next year’s legislative session, and Republican leaders have suggested they would seek tax cuts that Democrats said would leave less money for schools going forward.

“I hope next year with almost $1 billion on the table that we take a good, serious look at Gov. Dayton’s universal pre-K plan,” said Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth. Cornish shot back that no spending increase was ever enough for a DFLer.

“I think you’d rather take money and throw it down a rathole than give it back,” Cornish said.