Not even easy lawmaking is easy when state government is divided, it appears. Gov. Mark Dayton and legislative leaders demonstrated as much this week as agreements that would lead to a January special session stayed out of reach.
The reaching hasn’t ended. DFLer Dayton and House Republican Speaker Kurt Daudt said Friday that working groups considering early action on three issues had made enough progress to continue. They said they’ll try again next week.
While persistence is often a virtue, the need for it in this case is exasperating. It should have been almost routine for the governor and legislators to agree by now to advance two measures:
• Unemployment benefits should be extended another 26 weeks for Iron Range workers laid off as a result of the crisis in the steel industry.
• An ill-conceived 2009 statute that barred the Department of Public Safety from conferring with the federal government about federally mandated enhanced-security identification cards should be repealed.
No good reason exists to delay action on these two matters. If they are addressed this month, more time and care can go into crafting related measures for the regular session that’s set to begin on March 8. More time also seems in order for the third problem that DFLers nominated for special-session consideration: the disproportionate economic hardship endured by African-American Minnesotans.
It’s been nearly two months since Dayton proposed a special session to aid laid-off Iron Range workers whose unemployment benefits are expiring. (Governors have the sole authority to call special sessions, but customarily do not do so unless legislators agree first on an agenda. The Legislature decides when a special session adjourns.)
With some 2,000 taconite workers and at least 1,300 in related industries now out of work and 282 workers set to exhaust unemployment benefits before March 8, the need for a benefits extension is clear. It has ample precedent and would not tap the state general fund. Republicans’ attempt to make an extension conditional on a no-delay guarantee from Dayton about future Iron Range projects is unfair to idled workers in a state known for helping those in distress through no fault of their own.
The federal mandate for beefed-up “Real ID” cards went on the urgency list last month when the federal Department of Homeland Security denied Minnesota’s request for more time in meeting what is now a 10-year-old requirement. That urgency eased Friday afternoon. The Transportation Security Administration announced that fliers at the nation’s airports won’t need the enhanced ID cards to board an airplane until Jan. 22, 2018.
Nevertheless, the 2009 Legislature’s ban on even preliminary state-federal talks about Real ID ought to end as soon as possible. It’s denying state officials a chance to explore whether the federal mandate can be satisfied while addressing state lawmakers’ concerns about data privacy. The sooner such talks can begin, the better.
These are but two items on what has become a sizable accumulation of new and unfinished business for the 2016 Legislature. Its hefty agenda calls into question the wisdom of a nine-month gap between regularly scheduled lawmaking sessions and the plan for the Legislature to meet for only 11 weeks this year. No other entity with a $21 billion annual budget and direct impact on 5.5 million lives would excuse its governing body from duty for so long.
This year’s March 8 start date was chosen with the State Capitol’s reconstruction schedule in mind — that, plus the House’s insistence that it would meet only in its customary chamber and not decamp to temporary quarters in the new Minnesota Senate Building. If House leaders had opted to join the Senate across the street from the Capitol, the 2016 session could begin next week. Minnesotans who feel ill-served by a long lawmaking hiatus are bound to question that choice.