Imagine a legislative session without a State Capitol. That mental exercise occupied weary lawmaking minds Monday, the last day of the 2015 regular session and the last scheduled day for Capitol occupancy until 2016.
The Legislature’s dispute with Gov. Mark Dayton over the size and preschool provisions of a $17 billion, two-year E-12 education funding bill appears headed to a special session — to be conducted who knows where. The State Constitution requires only that it must occur somewhere in the city of St. Paul. On Sunday, Dayton proposed pitching a tent, circus style, on the Capitol lawn. (Insert your own quip here.)
Lawmakers showed this year what it’s like to craft a state budget without a fully functioning Capitol. It hasn’t been their proudest year. Several major bills didn’t make it to the finish line. I won’t blame the Capitol’s reconstruction for the lackluster result. Divided control — a DFL Senate and governor, a Republican House — mattered more. But the Capitol’s disruption didn’t help matters.
House GOP Speaker Kurt Daudt and other legislative backers of the E-12 bill Dayton says he’ll veto fault the governor for failing to rally sufficient support for his universal tuition-free preschool proposal. That may be so — but it was a year in which rallying anyone was challenged by the lack of space in which to rally.
The closure of two-thirds of the Capitol, including the rotunda, denied legislators the quick, sharp feedback that a noisy throng provides. The casual contact lobbyists have come to expect in the Capitol was limited. Senators with Capitol offices doubled up, squeezing out private small-group meetings and turning narrow corridors into congested waiting rooms.
Impromptu talks between the governor and legislators were also fewer and — literally — farther between. Dayton’s temporary office in the Veterans Services Building on the south end of the Capitol mall was too far away from legislative offices to allow for frequent interaction.
The Veterans Building space was deemed ill-suited to the customary closed-door, end-of-session negotiations the governor hosts. Those talks were moved to the Governor’s Residence 2.6 miles west of the Capitol — thereby isolating legislative leaders. It seemed to slow the progress of dealmaking. The residence’s side door and parking lot allowed participants to elude waiting reporters, which denied them timely feedback from the public.
Will 2016 be any better? No, it could be worse. The Senate plans to move its entire operation, including floor sessions, to its new building across University Avenue, farther from the governor’s temporary digs. Unless the House accepts the Senate’s invitation to conduct its floor sessions there, too, you’ll be reading next year about how meeting in separate buildings complicates House-Senate relations. And about how eager all who toil at the Legislature are for the Capitol’s reopening in 2017.