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Same-sex marriage debate stalls special session
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Gov. Tim Pawlenty says a disagreement over same-sex marriage may scuttle chances for a special legislative session. (MPR file photo)
Controversy over same-sex marriage threatens to scuttle chances for a special legislative session to address this year's many unresolved budget and policy issues. Lawmakers adjourned their regular session earlier this month without taking action on reducing the state's projected deficit, making infrastructure improvements, or enhancing public safety. While many lawmakers say they'd like a second chance to address those matters, Gov. Tim Pawlenty says they could all be lost in the argument over gay marriage.

St. Paul, Minn. — In a letter to lawmakers this week, Gov. Pawlenty outlined the scope of a potential special session. He contemplated tougher sentences for sex offenders, budget adjustments to correct a $160 million projected deficit, education reform, and constitutional amendments.

Although there were several proposed amendments this year, none was as visible and divisive as one that would define marriage and its legal equivalents as the union of one man and one woman. Pawlenty says he's sympathetic to proposal.

"To say that we're just going to ignore it, and pretend it doesn't exist as a public policy issue, seems to be a little naive," says Pawlenty. "I think if you don't like it, vote no. If you do like it, vote yes. But trying to just duck it I don't think is a realistic strategy, now or in the intermediate future."

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Image Sen. Dean Johnson

Pawlenty has also made it clear he wants clear and specific agreements on the session's agenda and duration before he calls lawmakers back to St. Paul. And Senate DFL leaders have been equally clear they don't want to revisit the gay marriage debate.

During the regular session, the GOP-controlled House agreed -- with bipartisan support -- to put the issue before voters in November. But in the Senate, the measure failed in committee and supporters were unable to bring the amendment to a full floor vote.

DFL Majority Leader Dean Johnson says that should be that -- and he accuses Republicans of holding the state's other business hostage to the gay marriage controversy.

"Call the Republican governor and the Republican Senate and House members, and tell them to get off their social agenda and get back to an economic, jobs, public safety, education, health care agenda -- the reason that we were sent there. And not to dictate the morality in this state like the Republicans are trying to do," says Johnson.

The finger-pointing goes both ways. Sen. Michelle Bachmann, R-Stillwater, says it's Johnson's unwillingness to take a recorded vote on the issue that is potentially blocking the Legislature's other business.

While Minnesota statute already prohibits same-sex marriages, supporters of a constitutional amendment say the issue has taken on a new urgency since a Massachusetts court struck down that state's ban last year. Bachmann says without a constitutional provision, the issue falls into the hands of judges.

"We know that there will be legal challenges here in Minnesota, and that this issue then will probably end up in the court system," says Bachmann. "And the people of Minnesota will be bypassed. Their voice will be silenced. They won't be able to be heard."

Bachmann says if a special session is called, she'll fight to get the gay marriage ban on the ballot. And Johnson says that's precisely why he has no interest in convening -- if a same-sex marriage wildcard is in the mix. He says if Bachmann is given a chance to advance her proposal, the Legislature's 200 other members will clamor for their own favored projects and initiatives.

"And you just have all kinds of political, legislative mischief. And that's the problem. I've seen it. I've been there over my 25 years," Johnson says. "You need to tighten this agenda down and bring it back to the very basics of why we're there."

Johnson says the governor should use his bully pulpit and leverage to ensure upfront that gay marriage won't be part of a special session agenda.

But Pawlenty says he and other Republican leaders can't control individual members or silence them on particular issues. In the House, Republican Majority Leader Erik Paulsen says he expects to see the measure return in that body, too.

Constitutional amendments can appear on the ballot only in years with a statewide election. After this fall, the next opportunity won't be until 2006.

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