Legislature, Dayton share blame for failing to finish

ECM Editorial Board
ECM Publishers Inc.

With each passing day, the likelihood that the Minnesota Legislature will be called into special session to finish its work grows dimmer. The next election is just four months away, and each day puts legislators seeking re-election more in candidate mode instead of being the public servants they were elected to be.

While it is true that state government will continue to function whether a special session is held or not, the reality is that both the Republicans and Democrats raised the public’s expectations by promising to do some targeted tax relief, to address the growing shortfall in transportation funding, and to fund public works projects through bonding.

None of those three things came to fruition, and all three entities involved — the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, the DFL-controlled Senate and Gov. Mark Dayton — deserve a share of the blame.

In 2014, voters decided that Minnesota should have a divided government, returning control of the House to the GOP and re-electing DFLer Dayton. To pass a bonding bill requires a supermajority of 60 percent, and neither majority caucus had 60 percent of the seats in the House or the Senate. The message to all was clear. You can’t have everything you want. You need to compromise.

And then all three promptly overplayed the hands they had been dealt.

The state was sitting on a $900 million budget surplus, so the money was available for both tax relief and to fund some critical needs. But after doing little of significance for two months, the major pieces were left undone.

The breakdown began in earnest when the House Republicans kept their bonding proposal secret until less than a week was left in the session, leaving little time to iron out the $700 million difference between the House and Senate bills.

In the last hour before the Legislature had to adjourn, the House passed the bonding bill without any funding for the Southwest Light Rail Transit (SLRT) project, and sent it to the Senate.

In the session’s closing minutes, the Senate added the SLRT line, but by the time the senators sent it back to the House, the House had adjourned.

Since then, Dayton has not helped matters. He refused to sign the one significant measure the Legislature approved — tax relief — ostensibly because it had a $100 million clerical error in the bill, but in reality to keep the pressure on lawmakers to make a deal.

This eliminated some funding for the new Vikings stadium, triggering a 10 percent tax on suite revenue. More importantly, it wiped out $260 million in tax relief for farmers, military veterans, student-loan debtors, small businesses, child care customers and smokers.

Only the governor can call a special legislative session, but instead of picking up where the legislators left off, the governor announced that the only way he would call them back is if the Legislature agreed to 16 items he favored that included $80 million in additional spending in fiscal year 2017, another $164 million in 2018-19 plus an additional $56 million in bonding.

Since then, all sides have been saying the same thing: “We need to compromise, but the other side won’t.”

Because the negotiations are secret, the only conclusion is that so far none of them are willing to “compromise” enough.

We do not blame the legislative leaders alone for this stalemate. Each of them is charged with delivering votes from their party’s caucus. If rank-and-file legislators refuse to accept a proposal, then the leaders are forced to continue negotiating.

Ultimately the intractability falls back on the citizens of this state. The truth is we are so polarized that most of our legislators do not have to worry about re-election. In the 2012 Senate election, fully 30 of the 67 senators won by 20 percent or more, a landslide by any definition. Another 12 won by 10 to 20 percent. Only six were in tight contests decided by less than 5 percent.

In the 2014 House election it was worse. Of the 134 members, 76 won by more than 20 percent, and another 33 won by 10-20 percent. Only 15 races were won by less than 5 percent.

As the looming election brings partisanship to the fore, those few hotly contested seats become the focus. The DFL needs to gain only seven House seats or the GOP only six Senate seats to regain total control of the Legislature.

In what has been an unusual presidential election, voters seem more willing to shake things up than they have in the past. If there is an issue that needs shaking up, however, it appears to be Minnesota’s legislative process.

Not doing the public’s business during this biennium in hopes of getting a better deal in the next shows contempt for the voters. Citizens should be contacting their legislators, demanding that they not sit on the $900 million surplus, that they do something to improve the transportation system, and that they maintain the state’s public buildings.

Citizens should also be asking for changes in the legislating process to reduce the logjam at the end of future sessions.

Beyond that, the only other recourse for voters is sending a message to the 11 incumbents who face August primaries, or, if that fails, to all the incumbents in the general election.

Given the lopsided majority that many of them enjoy, they may not be ousted, but perhaps they will begin to feel less comfortable about not getting their work done.

– An opinion of the ECM Editorial Board. The Isanti County News is part of ECM Publishers Inc.