Special session #2: A mixed disappointment

by Trevor Russell
The second 2020 legislative special session wrapped up July 21st with little to no progress on most major items. (Photo: Steve, CC BY-SA 2.0)


On the heels of a regular session and first special session that failed to live up to expectations, legislators have wrapped up a second special session with what could generously be considered “mixed results.”

While a modest police reform package did pass, most other legislative priorities failed to gain traction before the session expired earlier this week. In the end, legislators left St. Paul with little to show for their work.

Here's how FMR's top priorities fared. 

Clean water bonding & #FixThePipesMN (no action taken)

We believe that every Minnesotan deserves access to clean, safe drinking water and healthy surface waters. During the second special session, we once again renewed our calls for a pair of priority clean water investments.

  • #FixthePipesMN: FMR, along with our friends in the Fix the Pipes Alliance, asked Minnesota lawmakers to #FixthePipesMN and invest at least $300 million to replace and improve aging water infrastructure this session. This vital package would have protected public health, provided clean drinking water, mitigated flooding, and reduced pollution and untreated sewage from entering rivers, ponds and lakes across Minnesota. It would have also created an estimated 7,200 jobs statewide with more than $1.8 billion in total economic impact. The House's proposed bonding bill included $284 million of the requested $300 million. 
  • Farmland conservation: The Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) is Minnesota’s flagship land protection program that plays an important role in protecting clean water. Designed to permanently protect the most vulnerable lands in agricultural areas, gov. Tim Walz's $16.5M proposal would have earned an additional $33 million federal matching to complete a multi-year effort to support targeted agricultural conservation in Minnesota. The House's bonding proposal included just $1 million for CREP. 

Though leadership in both the House and Senate supported came to a preliminary agreement on a $1.8 billion borrowing package, a final bill failed to materialize after House GOP members pledged to withhold their votes over calls for the governor to relinquish COVID-19 emergency powers. Since all bonding bills must originate in the House and earn 60% of votes in both chambers to advance, the bill was dead.

As recriminations begin to surface among affected communities, efforts to reconvene in August to pass a bonding bill are likely off the table, as the state is rapidly approaching a “blackout period” for taking on additional debt. (1)   

Mississippi River bonding (no action taken)

FMR’s bonding priorities also supported one new Twin Cities riverfront project and opposed another.

  • Support — The River Learning Center ($3M)
    The River Learning Center will be home to the National Park Service’s Mississippi National River and Recreation Area headquarters and offer year-round river-oriented experiences focused on the land, water and culture of the river. This proposal was included in a House bonding bill that did not advance.
  • Oppose – A private concert venue on public land in Minneapolis ($5-20M)
    The Upper Harbor Terminal concert venue, which FMR strongly opposes, would use land currently in public ownership to build a controversial, privately-operated concert venue adjacent to the river in North Minneapolis. $5M million for this facility was included in the House proposal (down from $20 million during the regular session).

As no bonding bill was able to advance, no action as taken on either provision.

Transformational police reform (mixed)

In response to the murder of George Floyd, the Legislature’s People of Color and Indigenous (POCI) Caucus announced an ambitious suite of transformational police and criminal justice reform measures.

FMR joined more than 100 religious, civil rights, labor, business, health, farmer, social service and child welfare organizations in support of these proposals and asked our River Guardians to reach out to their legislators on their behalf.

The Legislature eventually agreed to a final package, dubbed the Reclaiming Community Oversight Act, that included some significant reforms. The bill:

  • Includes a conditional ban on chokeholds and warrior-style training;
  • Instructs the Peace Officers Standards and Training Board to develop new model policies on the mandatory duty to intercede and to report officer use of force (due December 15th);
  • Allows police departments to offer incentives for officers to live within jurisdictional boundaries;
  • Creates a new Bureau of Criminal Apprehension unit to investigate officer-involved deaths and sexual misconduct;
  • Modifies the Peace Officers Standards and Training Board to increase community involvement, oversight and data collection;
  • Increases training for mental health and autism awareness;
  • Provides new resources to help law enforcement manage job-related stress and trauma; and
  • Includes preliminary reforms to police discipline arbitration  procedures

While we are disappointed that the final package did not include additional police accountability and criminal justice reforms supported by the POCI Caucus, we acknowledge the hard work of front-line communities in getting these initial changes across the finish line. FMR remains committed to working with communities of color toward a more just and equitable society.

The Environment & Natural Resources Trust Fund (no action taken)

Also hanging in the balance during the second special session was the fate of the Environmental & Natural Resources Trust Fund (ENRTF). The voter-approved ENRTF was established in 1988, and has since used lottery proceeds to invest in over 1,700 research and conservation projects across the state.

This year's funding had succumbed to legislative inaction twice already, and the third time was not the charm. Though FMR River Guardians joined a chorus of Minnesotans asking lawmakers to pass a clean, stand-alone ENRTF bill, such a bill was never advanced.

Without action in a third special session, Minnesota will go without more than $61 million in much-needed environmental projects this year — along with the jobs and economic activity those investments create.

Looking ahead

A third special session? Sure, why not! Actually, since the governor's current emergency powers expire in mid-August, he'll need to call another special session to extend them. While in session, legislators could tackle some remaining items on the to-do list. While progress on a bonding bill remains highly unlikely due to the black-out period,  we remain hopeful that an ENRTF bill can advance during the upcoming special session #3.

Join the River Guardians

We count on over 2,000 River Guardians to help us shape legislation to protect the Mississippi River. We hope you'll take a moment to join us as we head into an upcoming special session.

We'll let you know when important river issues arise and help you quickly and easily let your legislators know your thoughts.

River Guardians are also invited to special events (including happy hours) to learn more about important legislative and metro river corridor issues and to toast our accomplishments.


(1) The state is preparing to sell bonds from previous legislative authorizations in August and September. State officials indicate that bond markets balk at states making significant changes to their financial positions during such sales. This “blackout” period runs until the bond sales are complete (likely in late September), likely making any new bonding bill impossible before then.