Come high water, tornado, corporate-raiding party or other onslaught of unprovoked trouble, Minnesotans habitually look to their Legislature for help — and the Legislature has habitually responded, often with a minimum of its routine partisanship and infighting.
Thus it didn’t seem unusual late last month when the premature end of the walleye season at the state’s premier walleye lake, Mille Lacs, occasioned gubernatorial talk of a special session of the Legislature. And why it seems a bit out of legislative character for Gov. Mark Dayton’s proposal to have reached the apparent dead end it hit last week.
“There’s not sufficient interest for a special session on the part of legislators for helping the people in Mille Lacs,” Dayton told reporters Tuesday. “I’m very disappointed. … Unless I hear otherwise, I’ll assume that the legislative bodies do not want to have a special session nor provide special assistance to the people at Mille Lacs who are very seriously in need of it.”
The DFL governor accused a bipartisan legislative working group — or at least its House GOP leader, Rep. Tom Hackbarth — of allowing his plea for Mille Lacs relief to turn into a “political spectacle” that is “really without precedent.”
Hackbarth pointed right back at Dayton, accusing the administration of failing to advance a detailed relief plan until three meetings of his working group had passed and of then coughing up a plan for property tax abatements, interest-free loans and a tourism promotional surge that Hackbarth deemed lacking in essential details.
Another working group member, Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, sounded a more conciliatory note in Dayton’s wake. “There’s a group of people there, businesses around that lake, that deserve our help,” said McNamara, who chairs the House environment/natural resources committee. “We’ll work on it through the interim to determine what it should be.”
As political spectacles go, the walleye special-session-that-wasn’t was pretty tame. It wasn’t even particularly partisan, since DFL legislators did not seem much more eager than Republicans to rush back to St. Paul. You might chalk up the episode as a non-election-year summer diversion — unless you happen to own a resort on Lake Mille Lacs.
But was it a precedent — or “without precedent,” as Dayton maintained? That’s a question worth mulling, given that what ails the big, shallow fishing pond east of Brainerd may not be an isolated or short-lived malady.
The Mille Lacs walleye population decline is said to have multiple causes, among them invasive species, climate change, overfishing, and faulty thinking at the Department of Natural Resources.
None of those is a condition unique to Mille Lacs. None is likely to abate anytime soon. That suggests that the pols are likely to hear more pleas for help like the ones that arose from the shores of Lake Mille Lacs. Intentionally or not, legislators likely are setting a precedent this summer for how state government will respond when eco-systemic changes cause human distress.
It’s a response that can’t be very reassuring to Minnesotans who worry about the ills that climate change might one day bring them. Or to anyone who has taken pride in a state government that does not sit idly by when trouble strikes.
Ah, but a walleye population decline is not a tornado or flood, I was told repeatedly as I sampled legislative opinion last week. No presidential or gubernatorial disaster declaration — a trigger for state disaster relief — is involved. No infrastructure damage requires immediate repair.
“The governor keeps referring to this a natural disaster. It’s not,” Hackbarth said. “It’s mismanagement of this lake. The DNR has responsibility for that. But does it rise to the level of a special session? I don’t think so.”
The recent bio-crisis most akin to the walleye problem is avian flu, the plague that decimated Minnesota poultry populations this spring and summer. The Legislature responded this spring with $23 million for several assistance programs and nearly $27 million for University of Minnesota poultry-testing facilities. It also extended unemployment benefits for laid-off poultry workers.
But that was different from what Dayton proposed this summer, said DFL Rep. David Bly of Northfield, sponsor of the avian flu legislation. Most of the funding the bird flu bill authorized went to state agencies, not directly to financially affected private businesses, Bly said. And the urgency to contain avian flu was fueled in part by a fear that the virus that was killing birds would mutate into a human pathogen if unchecked.
Even so, “there was a lot of concern about making sure that we not set a precedent that makes it more costly for the state when other industries are in trouble,” Bly said.
Evidently, after so many years of tight money, the precedent that’s worrisome to legislators is not the one set by saying no to a plea for help, but the one that would be set by saying yes.
Those in my legislative sample want it known that they have not said a final no to the pleas from Mille Lacs. They’ve only said no to a summertime special session. Regular-session lawmaking is scheduled to resume on March 8 — and as previously noted, this issue isn’t likely to go away soon. Some state assistance may yet be forthcoming.
But between now and March 8 lies the winter fishing season, a crucial revenue-producer for businesses that serve anglers. The DNR has not yet announced what restrictions might be imposed on walleye fishing this winter. If it opts to continue the walleye fishing ban it imposed on Aug. 3, legislators may be asked again in a few months whether they have an appetite for a walleye special session.
Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at email@example.com.