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Still waiting for real change from the DFL Legislature

house speaker paul thissen portrait
MinnPost photo by James Nord
The DFL is proving to be timid, cautious and inept at governing; it really seems to have defined its mandate from last year as more rejection of the GOP for over-reach than a call for boldness and change.

By Friday we will have a better idea of what Minnesota Democrats in the Legislature are made of. But if early indications are correct, timidcautious and maybe disorganized are the words that best describe the DFL majority approach to governing this year.

David Schultz portrait
David Schultz

First, why is March 15, so important? This is the first committee deadline at the Minnesota  Legislature. Every year the Legislature agrees to deadlines for legislation. These deadlines are referred to as committee deadlines. For a bill to have legs or remain viable it must pass some committee in its house of origin by a certain date. If it does not, the bill is presumed dead; theoretically it may not be taken up again. This year the first committee deadline is March 15, for policy bills. Thus a bill introduced in the House of Representatives must pass a committee by Friday for it to live another day. 

The second critical deadline is March 22. For any bill that passed in one chamber by March 15, its companion bill in the other body must pass a committee by March 22. Finally, March 29 is a third deadline for major appropriation and finance bills. These deadlines do not apply to bonding, budget and tax bills.

Guns, same-sex marriage ...

What all this means is that expect to see by Friday votes on critical issues that include guns, same-sex marriage, election reform and a host of other issues that the DFL majorities have been holding hearings on for the last several weeks. What committees do with those issues in next several days will be the clearest sign so far regarding how the DFL is interpreting the 2012 elections.

But one does not really need to wait until March 15; instead, the DFL is proving to be timid, cautious, and inept at governing; it really seems to have defined its mandate from last year as more rejection of the GOP for over-reach than a call for boldness and change. Just consider a few examples.

Guns. The DFL seemed all hot and bothered to legislate on guns, with proposals for universal background checks and bans on assault weapons placed on the agenda. Yet soon the assault-weapon measure was pulled, and then last week Rep. Michael Paymar’s bill for background checks was effectively made DOA by an NRA-sponsored one that commanded 74 sponsors. That bill follows the NRA line of targeting those with mental illness as the cause of gun violence. Maybe it will pass, but anything that does pass will largely be ineffective or fail to address the multifaceted problems  of guns and violence in Minnesota.

Reproductive rights. Perhaps the biggest disappointment last week was a 71-58 vote in the House to ban insurance coverage for abortion for women who secure their health-care coverage under the exchanges being set up in Minnesota pursuant to the Affordable Care Act. Even DFLers supported this bill. For the tens — if not hundreds — of thousands of women in Minnesota who will get their health-care coverage through this bill it means that they will not be able to exercise their reproductive rights unless they have their own money. This limit may very well be unconstitutional under the Minnesota Constitution. But regardless of the constitutionality, this shows a DFL Party that is hardly united and supportive of women’s rights.

Same-sex marriage. Legalizing same-sex marriage portended to be the hot-button issue of the 2013 session that would vex the DFL. Was the demise of the Republicans last November due to overreach on the social issues and the constitutional amendments? The DFL seems to have accepted that view and has moved very cautiously on same-sex marriage. It was not clear that the majority wanted to move on this issue and Gov. Mark Dayton’s tepid stance on the issue – I will sign the bill if it reaches my desk – is hardly a major legislative push on the topic.

But now to complicate the issue a Star Tribune poll on same-sex marriage suggests that a  majority opposes legalizing it. The poll may be flawed, but regardless of that, it adds support to DFL inaction on the issues.

Election reform. Right from the beginning the DFL seems to be pursuing election-reform issues that really will not make much difference. It has concentrated its efforts on voting reform. Yes, changing absentee voting to early voting is not a bad idea, but largely two major recounts in this state have shown that voting is not a major issue. However, even with this issue the House Elections Committee seems to be puttering around. The biggest problems are in the areas of lobbyist reform, legislature disclosure, revolving door,  and unlimited soft-money contributions to parties and the caucuses. There is no movement, let alone bills, on this topic. The response by the Legislature?  Some legislators and the governor want to raise contributions to candidates – hardly a reform and instead more of a bill of convenience for them.

Taxes. Dayton’s Minnesota Miracle round two is dead. Efforts to extend sales taxes to services and clothing and services are dead, as the governor has withdrawn support for both. The misfire on taxes best describes how timid and inept the DFL politics seem to be this session.

The tax proposals were dead even before the governor nixed them. While the economic theory behind taxing services is good, the governor played the politics all wrong. He never brought the DFL in from the start to get them to buy into the tax reform, and it was Tom Horner and not Dayton who had originally proposed sales-tax reform. Dayton was pushing an idea he did not prepare his party for — and he also pushed ideas that had significant and powerful lobbyist and special opposition. There was no way the DFL was going to support an issue opposed by major interests that fund their party, caucus and candidates.

Moreover, Dayton forgot that the DFL has a two-year term and the Senate four. House DFLers on taxes and a range of issues have very different interests in moving bills on these topics. They will see the voters sooner.

A coalition with very different interests

In addition, the DFL is still very much a coalitional party with those from the urban cores, suburbs and Iron Range having very different interests. Dayton, who was so smart as a gubernatorial candidate in bringing these different interests together, has fallen largely flat in doing that legislatively.

Finally, this is the same DFL that was consistently out-foxed politically by Gov. Tim Pawlenty; it was unable then to use it majorities effectively, and the same appears true now.

I remember my hard-core DFL friends telling me more than a year ago that Dayton and the DFL were biding their time for the second two years of the governorship. Their theory was that with the GOP out and the DFL in, real change would happen. I am still waiting.

David Schultz is a professor at Hamline University School of Business, where he teaches classes on privatization and public, private and nonprofit partnerships. He is the editor of the Journal of Public Affairs Education (JPAE). Schultz blogs at Schultz's Take, where this article first appeared.

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Comments (9)

Typical DFL

This is why I'm not a democrat. Ralph Nader has been saying for years that the democrats are the stupidest political party in the world and they demonstrate this time and again. They just don't seem to realize that when they get into power it's an opportunity to make progress and solve problems. Successful policy would keep them in power but they talk themselves into abandoning their own good ideas. People vote for them because they have a plan, they get elected and suddenly they got no damn plan. The people forget why they voted for democrats and republicans start winning elections again.

This is why we need a liberal party in American politics

There is no liberal party on the American political landscape, the Democrats keep illustrating that again and again.

Wait...why surprised?

That being said, some of the bold moves you're suggesting are overreach in my opinion. I'll agree that they're being (to be polite) weenies on the tax stuff, but the same sex marriage stuff could very well backfire. While I'm supportive of it, it is likely that it will either turn into a way to further secure support of the GLBT community, or it will blow up in their faces to further push away the social moderates.

Regarding gun legislation, as others have pointed out, attacking assault weapons is pure silliness. While it rings with the public, it will have little to no impact on the gun-related crime rate. And while it's a good idea to do background checks, in reality, increasing background checks will likely end in more money spent with little impact since even if such checks would be enforced, the databases that should weed out the criminals from gun ownership are fragmented and incomplete.

Regarding "election reform," what do you expect? Clean elections would keep many of those people away from being able to feel all powerful and special and stuff. And even if there are enough legislators who don't think along those lines, they might be thinking about how much more difficult it would be for ANYONE to get elected. As much as it would be a good thing to clean campaigns up, making it more difficult to get a position in the state legislature might result in narrowing the pool of candidates. Considering that, with only a few exceptions, Minnesota's elections are pretty clean.

Regarding reproductive rights--well, I'll agree that that was a dirty decision. However, it's my understanding that it was pretty much destined to be that way from the beginning. Obamacare was only narrowly approved (chickenturd Dems didn't use their majority in Congress, either) and one of the things compromised upon was abortion. But, really, this doesn't change much, nor is it unexpected. And probably politically intelligent.

The passionate fringe of

The passionate fringe of either party are always disappointed as the legislators are hit with the evidence that mainsteam Minnesota are largely moderate, not willing to to go far left or far right. At least not real fast anyway.

While Repubs may be too purist to endorse

sitting Governors (think Arne Carlson) Dems are absolute wimps. You have a majority in both houses and the governor get on with the tax reform and stop playing theater.

Between the President and the Minnesota Dems I am absolutely disgusted with the lack of leadership. No offense when Governor Dayton (and no disrespect to the Governor) seems the gutsiest Democrat around there is a problem.

The DFL has never held one

The DFL has never held one single position on guns or abortion, so why would we expect it to now?

I agree though, that Dayton has not handled the tax or elections issues well politically. Regardless of what one thinks of the merits, the B2B tax was a complete non-starter and should have never been in the bill. On elections, Dayton has boxed himself into the corner by demanding a bipartisan bill. Republicans aren't going to vote for anything that doesn't include Voter ID, so we've got the status quo assured there.

DFL Over-Reach

DFL – Please embrace the extreme and out of touch agenda of Mr. Schultz. If you do – future elections will be good for the GOP.

While I Share the Frustration

I would think that most of us would know enough to realize that the legislature is populated with human politicians.

Of course we voters refuse to actually elect any other kind of person to office,...

these being the days when taking a clear position on any issue is going to invite your opponents to try to stretch and shred that position until they have transmogfrified it into rope sufficient to hang you with.

That being said, my Democratic friends should expect, and can depend that the Republicans, such as my local reps, Ms. Franson and Mr. Ingebrigston, are already organizing (figurative) political lynch mobs aimed at the Democrats,...

based on the tried and true techniques so likely to successfully influence the unwary, unwise, and uninformed public who can't be bothered to inform or educate themselves beyond watching the usual dishonest barrage of "firestorms of chaos will arrive if you vote for the other party" political commercials to which "conservatives" are currently so addicted.

So, my Democratic friends, if they're going to try to (figuratively) lynch you, no matter what you do or don't do, why don't you demonstrate some real courage and actually DO all things they're going to accuse you of anyway?

At least you will have accomplished something worthwhile; maybe even something worth fighting for!

It will be a total waste of this moment in history if you accomplish nothing because you are too afraid you'll be attacked, when you're going to be attacked for it anyway!

The Minnesota House is almost

The Minnesota House is almost always a pro-life body regardless of who holds the majority. That shouldn't surprise anyone who follows the Legislature.