Special session underway: Legislature scrambles to avoid shutdown

The first special session of 2021 kicked off on Monday, June 14, marking the seventh straight month that the Minnesota Legislature has met. The agenda this month is both to consider Gov. Tim Walz’s extension of the current peacetime emergency and to conclude the Legislature’s work of assembling a two-year budget.

Since the adjournment of the regular session on May 17, legislators have been working behind closed doors to reach agreements. A few committees were able to come to final consensus, mainly those with smaller budget areas such agriculture, commerce/energy, higher education and Legacy funds. Committee chairs that were unable to reach agreement worked with legislative leaders to finalize agreements and in the last few days we have seen deals emerge on housing, transportation, jobs and economic development. Based on comments from legislative leaders, we anticipate more agreements will likely be released in the coming days.

These bills have been released as “agreements,” but we haven’t exactly seen smooth sailing as these budget bills have hit the House and Senate floors. Notably, the House Republican majority spent much of last week (and weekend) filibustering bills. The Senate took up many of the budget bills without too much controversy, but we have seen a few of the agreements break down, hinting at some intra-caucus disagreements.

Photo of the Minnesota State Capitol building.

As of Monday evening, eight of the 15 major budget bills have passed or been released publicly and are awaiting on House and/or Senate floor action. Almost all of these have been negotiated entirely behind closed doors by a limited number of legislators, inciting increased media attention to the legislative process. While the State Capitol officially opened its doors to the public in alignment with this special session, decision-making this special session has been anything but public.

Legislative leaders continue to express optimism that the Legislature will act in a timely way to avoid a government shutdown in advance of the end of the state fiscal year (June 30). That optimism, however, doesn’t negate the need for state agencies to spend significant time and resources to prepare to wind down operations in the event a shutdown occurs. Court cases issued after the last state shutdown have made it clear that previous approaches to a government shutdown may not occur and that any shut down would mean a nearly complete stoppage of all state functions.

The evolution of this special session should not come as a surprise considering Minnesota’s divided Legislature. The trend: Each body brings forward deeply partisan issues that had little chance of becoming law, compromise seems to only be found by completely removing these controversial items, and only a handful of legislators make final decisions.

Our Goff government relations team continues to birddog client issues and advocate for successful resolutions. We remain hopeful that, while this session is certainly bumpy, a June ending is within reach.

Five steps to people-first community engagement

From public policy initiatives to housing developments to road construction projects, clients turn to Goff Public for strategy and support when engaging the community in their work. Projects and initiatives are made better through effective community engagement, and we help our clients achieve this by creating inclusive processes to gather community feedback, evaluate the project through a community lens and communicate with stakeholders every step of the way.

Here’s a look at how we approach community engagement at Goff Public.

We get to know our audiences.

The first step in successful community engagement is the same for almost any communications project: identify your audiences. Knowing who you are trying to reach will inform the tools and messages you use. This is also when we work to identify any barriers to reaching certain groups and brainstorm creative ways to connect with them. For example, if the primary audience for your project doesn’t have reliable internet access, your community engagement plan would likely emphasize print materials – such as flyers and postcards – over digital advertising.

We also find it incredibly important to understand our audiences’ history and existing attitudes toward the issue or project, and the context of what’s going on in their communities at the time. For example, if a recent road project was very disruptive to residents during construction, they might need to hear more about the benefits of a project before showing support for another construction season.

The Goff Public team installs sidewalk decals encouraging the community to provide feedback on a Minnesota Department of Transportation road project.

We put the why before the what.

It’s easy to stick to the facts when communicating about a project – the type of work that will be done, how long it will take, how much it will cost. But these facts aren’t the most important messages for community engagement. People need to understand why a project is happening and how it will impact them before they can take in the details, provide feedback or champion your project. At the earliest stages, we focus our messaging on the benefits of the project and addressing the existing emotions of our audiences to start from a place of shared understanding.

We forge relationships directly within the community.

Trust is paramount when going to a community and asking for their time and feedback – especially if they’ve had experiences that lead them to believe they won’t be listened to. We partner with leaders and organizations that community members know and trust to facilitate information sharing and provide insights and feedback on the project.

We look for the gaps.

A key part of the community engagement process is continually evaluating to make sure you’re reaching your audiences. Key questions to ask:

Are the tools and feedback mechanisms being used?

What haven’t we heard?

Who haven’t we heard from?

What misconceptions or misinformation are we hearing?

Flexibility here is key. If something isn’t working, we reevaluate our plan and messaging, and make space for our audiences in the process. Even if we have created multiple channels and opportunities for feedback, an individual might give their input in whatever way is best suited to them – and that’s okay.

We continue the two-way dialogue.

Community engagement is only successful if both parties are communicating to each other – and if you both show that you’re listening. We always make sure to report back, and if there are unresolved conflicts, we make a plan to revisit them with affected community members.

And finally, we know that community engagement typically begins well in advance of a project or initiative. Communities change, and the same people who provided input at the beginning may not be the same people who need to hear from us as the project advances. We make sure to repeat our approach when the project (figuratively or literally) breaks ground.

Interested in learning more about Goff Public’s community engagement practice? Have a question about an upcoming project? Shoot me a note at ashley@goffpublic.com.