The Legislature in a Perilous Time of Session

“We soon came to the fort; they had fires on the banks of the river, and stretch across was piling anchored in the river, with torpedoes fixed, to prevent ourJohnTumaFeature boats from passing up the river.”

Capt. William Duncan
December 13, 1864

During one of the most perilous and destructive military campaigns in the history of America, General William Tecumseh Sherman broke loose from Atlanta during the fall of 1864 on his famous march to the sea. He was completely cut off from communications with the North and the last critical stage of this crippling blow to the Confederacy required pinpoint coordination with the US fleet sitting outside Savannah Harbor. Poor communication and timing in the battle to take Savannah and its imposing citadel, Fort McAllister, could have prolonged the war and cost millions of more lives.

Sherman knew that to succeed he needed to get a message through to Admiral Dalgren’s fleet that he had arrived and let him know when to commence the bombardment. He selected his three best spies to slip down the Ogeechee River through Savannah and past the fort in the cover of darkness in a very rickety dugout canoe that was essentially made to look like deadwood floating down the river. To lead this important mission, he selected Capt. William Duncan.

Duncan was one of the most renowned spies in the Union ranks. He had been captured four times behind enemy lines and all four times he escaped, which was fortunate because under rules of engagement, spies received summary execution by firing squad. With the assistance of local slaves, the three spies took a two-day journey floating by night and hiding in the mud during the day. When the rickety dugout reached the ocean it became highly unstable, capsizing several times before a Union battleship finally rescued them. With the message delivered, the battle was won. The message Duncan delivered would soon ring across the Union North that Sherman had reached the sea and victory was at hand.

Sherman would later recount how he never thought Duncan would ever survive the war given the risk he took as a spy. Nonetheless, Duncan would live out his life in tranquility in the Midwest. After the war, Duncan would eventually make his way to the Dakota Territory where he served briefly as a territorial legislator before he moved to Cannon Falls, Minnesota, to farm. He passed away peacefully among his family in 1925. To this day many of his relatives still live in the Cannon Falls area.

A legislative session is similar to Sherman’s march to the sea. Legislators start off with a general goal and understand what the major objectives are before them, but inevitably new challenges and surprising obstacles require careful planning to successfully complete the session. At this stage in our current legislative session, a small number of legislators typically referred to in the press as “the leadership” along with the governor, need to carefully chart a course through what often seems like enemy territory. In the even-numbered years such as this one, a legislative session is traditionally focused on what is known as the bonding bill. This bill funds major capital projects such as prisons, parks and government buildings such as the State Capitol renovation. For the conservation community, this is a very important bill, where normally about one quarter of it is dedicated to protecting the great outdoors. Such projects as water treatment, parks, trails, wildlife management areas and wetland protection are typically included. Because the bill is so central to the negotiations, it is not clear exactly where it will end up even though we are almost to the end the session.

Because our State Constitution requires the bonding bill to pass by a super majority, the DFL leadership will have to work with Republicans. As a result, the Republicans have demanded that the bonding bill not exceed $850 million. This has resulted in a challenge for the leadership to find the right mix of projects to get the requisite supermajority to approve the bill.

In addition to finalizing the bonding bill, legislative leaders will also have to develop budget targets for spending and taxes. For the conservation community there is a substantial increase in recycling funding in the House’s final proposal. The House proposal also includes policy and funding for one of Conservation Minnesota’s major initiatives, the Toxic Free Kids Act. This legislation would require manufacturers of children’s products to provide notice of the most toxic cancer-causing chemicals in their products before they can be sold in Minnesota.

Therefore, before legislators can enjoy a peaceful break before the beginning of the election, they will have to navigate the perilous waters of the end of legislative session. It will be quite similar to the feat done by William Duncan back in 1864. We will keep you informed as they progress down the river.

About John Tuma

John is a former state legislator and litigation attorney. He served in the Minnesota House of Representatives for eight years from the Northfield area, beginning in 1994. Elected as a Republican, John was known for his independent thinking and ability to work across party lines. He is well-known in Minnesota state government circles.
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