Special Sessions: A Calculated Risk

 

In what has been a busy year for special legislative sessions, Connecticut and Missouri highlight the promise — and the political peril — that can accompany such meetings. Connecticut's legislature met for seven hours in late October and passed a $626 million economic development bill. Missouri's met for seven weeks and accomplished little more than political finger-pointing.

Connecticut's bill, passed October 26, drew just a single opposing vote in each legislative chamber. The ambitious jobs plan contains everything from tax credits for small businesses to an expansion of wine festivals in an effort to drum up economic activity. More surprisingly, it left Democrats and Republicans patting one another on the back in a state that has seen more than its share of partisan animosity this year. "How often do you see this happening in Washington?" Democratic Governor Dannel Malloy exulted the day he signed the bill.

In Missouri, an apparent bipartisan consensus on economic development led Democratic Governor Jay Nixon to call a special session on September 6. But lawmakers spent nearly two months debating a $360 million tax-incentive package to create an air cargo hub at Lambert International Airport in St. Louis. The proposal ultimately failed, and the special session limped to a close amid a stream of negative reviews. "This fiasco," House Minority Leader Mike Talboy, a Democrat, said in a statement, "will go down in Missouri Capitol lore as the Lost Legislative Session."

The different outcomes underscore the political risks that governors and legislatures take when holding extra sessions. By their nature, they are high-profile affairs, bringing lawmakers, staffers and the media back to state capitals to debate pressing matters that leaders felt could not wait until the next regular session begins.

The attention can be amplified when divisive subjects, such as redistricting or budget cuts, are on the agenda. Reporters and other government watchdogs add to the pressure by keeping a running tab of how much special sessions cost taxpayers in the form of per diems, mileage reimbursements and staff salaries. In Missouri, the seven-week total came to $287,000, leading many politicians and editorial writers to decry the session as a waste of taxpayer money, even though the cost amounts to just a tiny sliver of the state's $23 billion annual budget.

In Nebraska, Republican Governor Dave Heineman called the legislature back into session on November 1 in an effort to change the route of the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline, which, supporters hope, will carry oil from Canada to refineries in Texas, passing through Nebraska. The proposed route has caused vocal opposition within the state. But it is unclear whether Nebraska has the legal authority to do anything about the pipeline's route, since it has already been charted and final approval rests with the Obama administration. Heineman himself opposed a special session until he surprised observers and legislators by calling one, and his about-face has raised basic questions about the meeting.

"There's no doubt that this train has left the station," says Paul Landow, a political science professor at the University of Nebraska in Omaha. "If we were going to attempt to make major changes in this pipeline, it should have been done quite a long time ago."

Maps and budgets

This year, special sessions have been more common than is usual. Brenda Erickson, a longtime analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures, notes that state special sessions generally happen more frequently during redistricting years and tough economic times. 2011 meets both criteria. At least 25 special sessions have been called so far, with several more expected over the next few weeks, according to NCSL. Subjects that still could be addressed range from how to pay for a new Vikings football stadium in Minnesota to whether to remove the controversial "Fighting Sioux" nickname at the University of North Dakota.

At least 11 special sessions have dealt with redistricting, the once-a-decade redrawing of legislative and congressional lines. Erickson says it is common for states to plan on special sessions specifically for redistricting, given the detailed and often openly partisan nature of the work. That description has held true this year, with politically hostile redistricting sessions in Arizona, Louisiana and Maryland, among other states.

The economy is also bringing many lawmakers back. Besides the economic development sessions in Connecticut and Missouri, lawmakers in Wisconsin just finished their own special session on job creation. Washington State legislators will be returning to Olympia just after Thanksgiving to consider as much as $2 billion in budget cuts, and majority Democrats may use the meeting to lay the groundwork for higher taxes in next year's regular session.

Not all states hold special sessions frequently. They are relatively rare in states that conduct regular business for much of the year. But where the regular sessions are short, the special sessions can be long. "It's not uncommon for Oklahoma to have special sessions that last a year," Erickson says.

Lessons from Connecticut

A politically successful special session often depends on lawmakers finding agreement before any official call to action is made.

Connecticut may have approved a costly and complicated job creation plan in a matter of hours when lawmakers returned in October, but "it took hundreds of hours of staff-to-staff meetings, beginning in September," says Pat O'Neil, communications director for Lawrence Cafero, the leader of House Republicans. "For over a month, we were meeting all day and into the night. It was like the NBA talks."

Governors and lawmakers take risks when they call special sessions before agreements are in place. Missouri's Republican legislative leaders thought they had a deal on their airport tax-incentive package, but within hours of the special session beginning, they ran into a filibuster from state Senator Jason Crowell, a fellow Republican who believed the proposal was a giveaway. Crowell is widely known in Jefferson City for his use of the filibuster.

Legislative leaders should have known that Crowell "was out there, lurking in the shadows," says George Connor, a political science professor at Missouri State University. "Republican leadership thought they had a deal they could sell their members. Obviously, they didn't get him on board."

Still, even failed special sessions can bring political benefits for some lawmakers, says Landow, the University of Nebraska professor. While Nebraska legislators may not be able to re-route the Keystone XL pipeline because of the federal government's apparent control over that decision, they can come home to constituents and say they tried.

"The special session is good political cover," Landow says. "Even if they don't pass anything, they can say, 'I did my best.' And if (they do pass legislation and) it goes to the courts, they can say, 'Well, we can't help it. Look at those darn federal courts.'"

 
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