There's Nothing Special About a "Special Session"
As the regular 2011 Legislative session reaches its constitutional mandated adjournment, the feelings of excitement and hope that started the session in January are being replaced with an overwhelming sense of Déjà vu.
This year at the State Capitol it appears the session will have a similar outcome as in several recent budget battles, the need for the Governor to call the legislature back to complete the budget in a "special session". But don't let the term fool you; six out of the last ten years there have been "special sessions."
Why have "special sessions" become the norm, rather than the exception? If you took a stroll through the Capitol halls today you would notice that there is something missing besides a balanced state budget; there is no sense of urgency. The Constitution requires the State Legislature to adjourn by the third week in May; after all, we are supposed to have a part time legislature. Back in the 1850s when the document was drafted that imposed the adjournment deadline, farmers had to get back home to plant the crops. Today many of the Legislators have no full-time employment, so sitting around the marble kingdom has become their main occupation. Therefore the urgency to pass a budget and conclude the business of the state seems to drag on endlessly.
In addition to the lack of urgency, there has been a growing trend toward brinksmanship. Each side waiting or delaying as the clock keeps ticking. Like a game of chicken, waiting to see who blinks first. In the "special session" the stakes get higher as June 30th approaches because it is the end of the budget year and the government shutdown talk escalates.
A "special session" can be just like overtime in the big leagues, it can end quickly or it can drag on forever. If there is not a prescribed plan for a budget deal it can be nothing but tedious days and weeks of negotiations behind closed doors. The negotiations can turn into a waiting game, leaving the taxpayers like an expectant Father camped outside the hospital room, waiting for the results of that difficult and painful process of child birth. An example of that would be the longest "special session" in Minnesota History in 1971, it began in May and didn't conclude until October.
Most Capitol observers have predicted a deadlock over this year's budget process for months. Despite the rhetoric about finishing on time and the platitudes regarding working together, few if any really expected a budget agreement by the end of session. But that's where this years predictions have ended. Few, if any will go out on a limb and predict how and when this budget battle will conclude.
The battle line in this year's budget debate centers on taxes. With a projected increase in revenue of $3 billion, the Republican controlled Legislature believes there is no need to raise taxes. The Governor on the other hand, has proposed an income tax increase on the top 5 percent. The result is a standoff that has already covered five months.
Looking back, the last "special session" battle over a tax increase was in 2005. The DFL controlled Senate wanted to impose a tax increase on top income earners to fix a $400 million budget deficit. Governor Pawlenty opposed this idea and the deadlock led to a seven-week special session, and the state's first partial government shutdown. That "special session" ended without an income tax increase.
This year the stage is set for a similar budget debate in a "special session." Governor Dayton is demanding an increase in taxes on the states top income earners, but the Republican controlled House and Senate are holding fast to the pledge that "State government must live within it's means." Squaring off in the battle over a tax increase is a Democrat Governor whose approach for the need to raise taxes is not as a fiscal issue, but a moral issue. Governor Dayton stated in a recent newspaper article that balancing the budget without a tax increase "would mean giving up everything I believe is right for Minnesota."
The clock is ticking and with the prospect of government shutdown looming its likely that Legislators and the Governor will come to a budget agreement before July. Governor Dayton will hold out most of June, but in the end he will forgo his tax increase in order to prevent public employees missing a paycheck. Not exactly high drama, just another not so "special", "special session."