Capitol Update for May 16, 2008

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This week’s update from lobbyist John Tuma:

“Of a romantic and jovial disposition, he was not at all averse to playing the part assigned him in this little drama.”
-Dr. William Folwell*

As we celebrate Minnesota’s 150th birthday this week, it is worth reflecting on why we are celebrating it in the capital city of St. Paul.  The above quote from the renowned Minnesota historian, Dr. William Folwell, was describing the role played by fur trader and territorial legislator, Joseph Rolette Jr., back in 1857 in preventing the removal of the state Capitol from St. Paul to St. Peter.  As our territorial government proceeded toward statehood, several of the agricultural-minded interests wanted the state Capitol in a location more central to the prairie.

On the other hand, the fur trading interests that dominated Minnesota’s history to that date had built their empire around Fort Snelling and later around St. Paul.  At the time of the territorial government, huge caravans of ox carts would rumble and squeak their way down to St. Paul each summer from the Red River Valley, laden with fur bound for the East Coast.  Rolette was one of the key figures in this fur trading enterprise between the Metis people from Pembina in the Red River Valley and the fur trading middlemen in St. Paul led by our future governor Henry Sibley.  Removal of the state Capitol to St. Peter would have greatly harmed the business interests in St. Paul to which Rolette had close ties.

Near the close of the territorial legislative session in 1857, a bill was proceeding for the removal of the state capitol to St. Peter.  It had one last committee stop before it became law – the committee chaired by the legislator from Pembina, Joseph Rolette Jr.  Not having the votes to stop it in his committee, the resourceful chair promptly slipped the bill in his pocket and disappeared.  Many believe this was a conspiracy by the fur trading business interests of St. Paul.  As legend has it, he gambled with some of his St. Paul cronies in the back room of a hotel for a week, waiting for the session to end while the sergeant of arms of the Legislature scoured the streets of St. Paul looking to bring Rolette back to deliver the bill for final action where it was sure to have passed.

The Legislature did pass a copy of the original bill, but the courts later ruled that this was not a legal action by the Legislature because it was not the actual bill.  As a result, the state Capitol remains to this day in the great city of St. Paul, in part thanks to this “romantic and jovial” character.  Those who have taken my Legislative 101 class know I use the example of Rolette’s disappearance to emphasize the power of the chair in the legislative process and the importance of recognizing that the chair has physical control over a bill.  There are many ways for a chairman to put an end to a bill in his or her possession.  Disappearing with the bill is a drastic measure.  As time has passed, stopping a bill’s progress has become a much more refined art.

Unfortunately for the advocates of the Minnesota Clean Cars Bill (SF481/HF863), we experienced one of the many ways a bill can effectively be terminated in this year’s legislative process.  The strategy by some key chairs employed against our bill is essentially that of delay to kill its momentum.

Our Clean Cars bill has had several near-death experiences and our chief authors, Sen. John Marty and Rep. Melissa Hortman, have been like heroic EMTs valiantly resuscitating it several times this year. The latest momentum killing saga began back on March 18th when the bill was referred to the Senate Business, Industry and Jobs Committee chaired by Sen. Jim Metzen (DFL-South St. Paul).  It arrived in this committee after an overwhelmingly strong vote in the Senate Transportation Committee.  The momentum was definitely on our side as of March 18th.

Then the delay began. Despite repeated attempts by the Green Team and our chief authors for an earlier hearing, we were told by the Business, Industry and Jobs Committee staff that the bill would not receive a hearing until it was processed through the final House committees and was on its way to the House floor.  The bill was delayed in the House due to objections from Rep. Al Juhnke (DFL – Willmar), who claimed the bill needed to go to his Agriculture, Rural Economies and Veterans Affairs Finance Division despite the bill not having any financial impact on that committee’s budget.

As a result of this dispute in the House, the bill was delayed in reaching the House floor.  The bill was well on its way to reaching the House floor by early last week; however, we were not notified of the May 12 hearing date for the Senate committee until Thursday of last week.  This essentially gave our Senate author only two working days to get witnesses lined up, making it extremely difficult for us to get our experts to the committee.  The chair proceeded with a hearing on Monday even though the chief author was unable to make it and the only testimony heard was from the opposition.  The committee then reconvened on Thursday of this week to give Senator Marty a chance to present his bill and receive a vote.  With the legislative session nearing a conclusion probably on Saturday or Sunday, Senator Marty was essentially given a hearing at the 11th hour – no, actually more like the 11th hour and 59th minute.

It is a common tactic to bring a bill to a negative conclusion to delay the hearing date.  Moving items through the Legislature depends on momentum and one of the more effective ways of ending a bill is slowing down its momentum.  Delaying the bill after having it for almost 2 months was definitely a momentum killer.  To Chair Metzen’s credit, he did give us a hearing which he had no obligation to do.  Unfortunately, the Green Team was not able to keep the momentum going after two months of delay and generate the votes in this committee, which has gained a reputation as a bill killer.

On Thursday before the vote was taken we had solid testimony by our author, Senator Marty, and the Green Team members Jim Erkel (Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy) and Molly Schultz (MEP/Conservation Minnesota).  We also continued to receive support from Minnesota Farmers Union with testimony from Thom Peterson.  Coralie Cooper, of the Northeastern States for Coordinated Air Use Management, was our expert to testify via telephone due to short notice of the hearing.

Despite these valiant efforts, the bill still failed on a 7-10 vote.

Those voting for the legislation in this committee were:

Terri Bonoff (DFL – Minnetonka)
Jim Carlson (DFL – Eagan)
Ron Latz (DFL – St. Louis Park)
Geoff Michel (R- Edina)
Steve Murphy (DFL – Red Wing)
Kathy Saltzman (DFL – Woodbury)
Linda Scheid (DFL – Brooklyn Park)

Those voting against the legislation were:

Chair Metzen
Tom Bakk (DFL – Cook)
Dick Day (R – Owatonna)
Chris Gerlach (R- Apple Valley)
Joe Gimse (R – Willmar)
Amy Koch (R- Buffalo)
Julie Rosen (R- Fairmont)
Rod Skoe (DFL – Clearbrook)
Dan Sparks (DFL – Austin)
David Tomassoni (DFL – Chisholm)

If only two of the negative votes had swung our way, the bill would have passed and still would have a little life left this session.  Senator Skoe did make a nice speech indicating possible support in the future.  He voted for the bill in a prior committee.  There is still a slim chance the bill could be revived before the end of session, but with the late hour, time is quickly running out.  The strategic tactic of delay proved to be an effective tool for the demise of one of the most important environmental bills for this session.

Coincidentally, this Senate hearing took place in room 112 of the Capitol, where a prominent portrait of Joseph Rolette Jr. rests on the wall above the chairman’s seat.  It seemed sadly ironic that the bill took its worst hit in the committee room that had the portrait of the territorial legislator who became famous for killing a bill.

However, it was not all doom and gloom for the Green Team this week.  The final conference committee report for the Green Solutions Act (HF3195) passed both bodies on very wide bipartisan margins.  The House vote was 96 – 36 with 14 Republicans in the yes column and only two DFLers in the no column.  The Senate the bill passed 41 – 22.  The bill will now be transmitted to the Governor for his signature.  There has been no indication that he opposes the bill now that it has been watered down to mostly just a couple of studies on the effects of a regional cap and trade system.  This was certainly not the bold endorsement by the Legislature of a regional cap and trade that we had envisioned this bill representing, but nonetheless it does provide us with two very important studies and keeps the issue moving forward.  Much thanks to the hard work by our chief authors Rep. Kate Knuth and Sen. Ellen Anderson.

As of the writing of this report on late Thursday evening, the Legislature and the Governor still had not reached their global agreement on the overall budget reconciliation bill.  Until that is finalized, we do not expect the Legislature to agree on the final capitol investment projects.  As reported earlier, it is still our hope that two of our important initiatives will be included in the final bonding package.  Both the Lake Vermilion State Park and the Central Corridor light rail project are still in play and we’re working hard for their inclusion in the final global agreement.  Given the number of days the Legislature has left, they will essentially need to be done by 7 a.m. on Monday morning.  You can expect a flurry of legislative activity this weekend.  Therefore, you can anticipate one more report about our 2008 Legislature as they search for a solution in the city of St. Paul, thanks in part to Joseph Rolette Jr., the old bill killer.

* A History of Minnesota, by William Watts Folwell, The Minnesota History Society, 1956, 1: 384-386.  As repeated in Making Minnesota Territory 1847-1858, Anne R. Kaplan and Marilyn Ziebarth editors, in the story The Power All Whiteness, by Bruce M. White, Minnesota Historical Press, 1999, page 41.

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