- Associated Press - Thursday, August 13, 2015

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) - The prospect of a financial rescue package for resorts struggling from a shortened walleye season at Mille Lacs Lake was put in limbo Thursday, as lawmakers froze talks about how to help and downplayed the likelihood of a special session.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources closed the walleye fishing season on Mille Lacs because a harvest quota was exceeded. It’s a potential blow to tourism in the area, prompting Gov. Mark Dayton’s administration to sketch out a plan to help businesses and leading to talks last week among state officials and lawmakers.

Any action would require a special session of the Legislature, but some lawmakers don’t think it’s necessary.

Thursday’s meeting ended abruptly, with a key lawmaker, Rep. Tom Hackbarth, R-Cedar, saying there’s no need to continue talking until Dayton calls the Legislature back to St. Paul or restarts the talks himself.

“We are not going to get consensus,” said Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings. “There’s too much angst over this. There’s too much unknown.”

He added: “For those that want immediate help in the next month … it’s not happening.”

McNamara counted himself among those hesitant to return to St. Paul for a special session, along with the two lawmakers chairing the group - a Senate Democrat and a House Republican.

Only Dayton wields the power to call the Legislature back to work, but that hinges on buy-in from legislators who set the agenda for a special session.

The relief package Dayton’s administration has sketched out includes some no-interest loans and property tax cuts for up to 160 businesses around the lake, along with additional advertising dollars to promote smallmouth bass and northern fishing at the lake.

For many lawmakers, it’s not simply a matter of short-term financial assistance. There are also the factors behind a 30-year decline of the lake’s walleye population to consider, plus an overarching unease about stepping in at Mille Lacs while other industries across the state also struggle.

“When do we do this specifically for one group and not for everyone? I think that’s one of the things that’s got a lot of legislators confused right now,” said Sen. David Tomassoni, a Chisholm Democrat.

Speaking by phone from Guadalajara, Mexico, in the midst of a trade mission early Thursday, Dayton urged lawmakers to give Mille Lacs businesses some clarity on whether financial help was coming. He expressed a hope that they could hold a special session sometime next week.

After the working group froze talks, Dayton called it “playing games, rather than providing help.”

“If they do not want to help Mille Lacs resorts and residents in a special session, they should say so,” the Democratic governor said in a statement.

Minnesota Management and Budget Commissioner Myron Frans urged uncertain lawmakers to put the broader issues aside and band together to send immediate help to an area that depends on walleye anglers to thrive.

“We can’t solve every problem today. We can provide a direct, targeted relief package,” he said.

Before adjourning the meeting and putting the onus on Dayton to get the talks moving again, Hackbarth called the administration’s plan a “basic outline” that needs more detail. In his statement, Dayton shot back, saying lawmakers should counter with their own proposal.

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