Stateline Story

Special Sessions Rarely Live Up to the Name

  • December 06, 2005
  • By Brian H. Kehrl
With the region still reeling three weeks after Hurricane Katrina, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R) in September began calling lawmakers back to the capital in Jackson for a special session to aid the anxious riverboat casino industry and sort out the financial mess the storm left behind.  
Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco (D) waited until November, but, like her counterpart across the Mississippi River, she also called a special session to pare back the budget in response to the plunge in state revenue.
  
Both governors were forced to use special sessions because their states' part-time legislatures were out of session.
  
If a Category 4 hurricane is extraordinary, however, calling the legislators in for an extra session is anything but. States had held 35 special sessions through Nov. 30, according to the latest tally by the National Conference of State Legislatures . Florida lawmakers this week are in special session debating the regulation of slot machines, among other issues. And the Montana legislature is scheduled to head back to the capital on Dec. 14 to devise a new plan for funding schools, in this year's 37th special session.
  
And that is not a particularly high number, according to Brenda Erickson, an expert in legislative procedures with NCSL. The organization said that as many as 58 special sessions were called throughout the states in 1981. There were 52 in both 2001 and 2002. The Arizona Legislature convened seven extra times in 1993.
 
Extra sessions force legislators to drop their regular jobs to hustle back to the capital. They vary widely in cost, depending on the per diem pay of the legislators, the length of the session and the payment of additional legislative staff. On average, according to an informal survey of state legislatures by NCSL, extra sessions cost anywhere between $15,000 (in Arizona) and $47,000 (in North Carolina) per day.
  
The specific topics for sessions vary widely, from gaming to education spending to stadium financing. But the sessions generally are called for three basic reasons: to deal with budgets and economic issues, to respond to external events and to settle thorny issues that spill over from the regular session.
  
The most common trigger is a slumping national economy.

The Minnesota Legislature, for example, was forced to temporarily shut down parts of the government this summer after missing a deadline for finalizing the budget. In their first of five special sessions of the year, lawmakers were bogged down by disagreements over funding for health care and schools and were forced to briefly suspend 9,000 public employees and cancel some government services.
  
The public expressed disapproval of the unproductive squabbles within the Legislature, which is split between 99 Republicans and 101 Democrats, Senate Minority Leader Dick Day (R) told Stateline.org . "We had a very contentious general session. ... And we didn't get our work done, and people were pretty perturbed about that."
  
Five other states - Alabama, Alaska, Connecticut, Vermont and West Virginia - held more successful special sessions to deal with their budgets. Each opened and closed in under two weeks, with Vermont wrapping up its session in two days.
  
In Mississippi's session on Hurricane Katrina, the Democrat-controlled Legislature ultimately adopted Gov. Barbour's controversial plan to allow the state's riverboat casinos to come a short distance inland to limit their vulnerability to future storms.
  
Other major natural disasters and external events that led to special sessions in the past were Colorado's drought and wildfires in 2002, the extensive flooding in West Virginia in 2001, and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, which set off a swarm of disaster preparedness sessions.
  
Texas held two unsuccessful special sessions on public school funding this summer after a court ruled in 2004 that the state's existing system was unconstitutional, forcing the Republican-controlled Legislature to develop a new system.
  
However, the Legislature was unable to come to an accord, in either the regular session or the two back-to-back special sessions called by Gov. Rick Perry (R). Now, legislators have to nail down a new plan by a court-ordered June 1, 2006, deadline, or risk schools not opening next fall.
  
Sometimes, states deliberately deal with messy and highly partisan issues such as redistricting in special sessions to keep them from fouling up the regular sessions, according to Erickson of NCSL.
  
Some special sessions are triggered automatically by gubernatorial vetoes or constitutional requirements to maintain a balanced budget. Governors can also use special sessions to force the legislature to consider a particular subject.
  
Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell (D), for example, has tried to use a special session this fall to push his campaign to use state gambling revenue to pay for school funding, a move designed to allow the state to reduce property taxes. A 2004 law allows school districts to accept the gambling money, but only 20 percent of the state's school districts have done so. Rendell is now looking at ways to promote, or force, more participation. The special session is in its ninth week, with no results so far.
  
In Pennsylvania, which has a full-time Legislature, special sessions are gaveled in and out during the regular session. Still, they empower the governor by allowing him to choose the subject and force the lawmakers to deal only with that issue, according to Pennsylvania Sen. Jeffrey Piccola (R).
  
In states with part-time legislatures, the governor also has the advantage of keeping lawmakers at work in the capitol, even if they want to get home, according to Allan Saxe, professor of political science at the University of Texas-Arlington.
  
Even when the governor wields the sessions as a hammer to force something through, however, he needs to go in with some agreement from the legislature, Erickson said. Otherwise, a snubbed legislature simply will not act on the governor's proposals.
  
The governor has the sole power to call a special session in 17 states, including Minnesota, Mississippi and Texas. Both the legislature and the governor can do so in the other 33.