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Grading the legislative session: C+ for DFL, but F on reform and bipartisanship

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Courtesy of MN House Public Information Services/Paul Battaglia
Both the Democrats and Republicans will go to the voters in 2014 telling their side of the story, leaving Minnesotans the final verdict regarding whether the Democrats deserve to hold on to the governorship and House majority control.

Students across Minnesota are finishing their exams and awaiting their final grades. The 2013 Minnesota legislative session is over and now it is time also to assess the performance of one-party rule in Minnesota.

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David Schultz

So how did the DFL do? If the legislative session were to be graded, it earned an overall C+ but F grades when it came to working together and in making structural reform.

Republican State Rep. Steve Drazkowski, of Mazeppa, stated it well: "We had an election back in November. And yes, Minnesota, elections have consequences."

Had Tom Emmer rather than Mark Dayton been elected governor in 2010, Minnesota might well be a state that looks different today with more restrictive laws on voting, abortion, taxes, and perhaps on same-sex marriage. But Dayton did win and Republicans overreached with the marriage and elections amendments and in precipitating a government-shutdown. They were ousted, yielding the first one-party rule in Minnesota in 20 years.

Many DFL promises

DFLers promised a lot. They pledged a balanced budget with no gimmicks, a bonding bill, and a host of other pieces of legislation addressing economic development, bullying, guns, minimum wage, and unionization for day-care workers. The governor also pledged to solve the funding formula for the Vikings stadium, raise income taxes on the wealthy, invest more in schools, give some property tax relief to homeowners, and transform the sales tax system to include clothing and more services.

All this the governor and the DFL pledged to do in a bipartisan fashion. Such a pledge was made out of fear of overreach if they were to purse issues such as legalization of same-sex marriage.

No matter what post-mortem is written up, this will forever be the session known for legalizing same-sex marriage. It did so largely along partisan lines, and it did so in part because of intense lobbying from supporters of same-sex marriage who unleashed a drove of lobbyists at the Capitol. It also passed because of the perfect storm of shifts in national public opinion and state views that even if not supportive of same-sex marriage they were not opposed. Passage of it should relieve Republicans of advocating a losing issue for them, but its legalization may also give DFLers little bonus point in the 2014 House elections.

Democrats largely delivered on Dayton’s pledge that the wealthy will pay more taxes, but largely abandoned the reform of the sales tax system, opting instead for the safer option to go after smokers with $1.60 more per pack. This tax will be used for general revenue and to help finance the Vikings stadium. In doing the latter, the governor and the Legislature are essentially using tax dollars to finance the stadium, and there is no clear indication that these revenues will be enough to offset the miserable pull-tab revenues. The state is addicted to addiction, counting on smokers to continue to smoke and not using the new revenue to offset smoking-related expenses.

Came close to single-party gridlock

The budget was done on time, barely, and DFLers displayed terrible time-managed skills and the ability to reach consensus among themselves, revealing what came close to single-party gridlock. But whether the budget was done gimmick-free and balanced is a matter of debate. Originally pledging to pay back the K-12 shift, that was abandoned by the DFL. Additionally, the nearly $800 million borrowed off the tobacco bonds last session should have been paid back, and that too is not reflected in the balanced budget. The state failed to make any real changes in any tax law to make it more stable – such as a change in property taxes to help in-state businesses, or adjust sales taxes.

Single-party rule also produced a stripped-down bonding bill to pay for Capitol renovations, money for Rochester and the Mayo Clinic, tax credits for Mall of America  expansion, more money for K-12, a freeze of public university higher education tuition for two years, a day-care unionization law, and some property tax relief for home owners. One should also not forget that the health-care exchanges were created to allow state implementation of Obamacare.

All of these are significant accomplishments. The DFL failed on enacting anti-bulling legislation, a new minimum-wage bill, and significant gun legislation. For all of these changes the DFL deserves an overall C+ grade – it delivered on many of its promises.

Little bipartisanship, reform

Yet the legislative session failed to produce much in terms of bipartisanship. Too many of the votes followed party lines, revealing a state largely divided. Both the Democrats and Republicans will go to the voters in 2014 telling their side of the story, leaving Minnesotans the final verdict regarding whether the Democrats deserve to hold on to the governorship and House majority control.

Finally, where the DFL really failed was in terms of structure reform. There was no comprehensive sales or property tax reform. There was no major reform of the way government does business. But more sadly, the biggest story the media has taken a pass on is how this is a legislative session that not only failed to take the chance to make structural reforms but actually moved in the wrong direction and caved into lobbyists and special interests on a range of issues.

The Legislature passed campaign finance un-reform legislation that would increase contribution and spending limits dramatically, allow for lobbyists to give more gifts to legislators, and also increase the level of disclosure for contributions, thereby making it easier for many, including lobbyists, to give more money but with less disclosure and transparency.

Dismantled more '90s reforms

To a large extent, this is a dismantling of the remaining vestiges of Sen. John Marty's reforms from the 1990s and a giant step back in government integrity. Minnesota already had shrunk and fallen from its heyday when it was national leader in political ethics, earning failing and near failing grades from the nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity in these areas.

The new changes do nothing to reverse that trend. For these reasons, the session deserves an F when it comes to structural reform, doing little to change the way the state does business for good.

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 (15)

Did you really expect bipartisanship?

Really?

If the democrats had done nothing without republican votes... absolutely nothing would have gotten done. Would you really prefer that? The republicans have one agenda and one agenda only... paralyzed government. They vote for nothing else. Until republicans become interested in working the government instead of dismantling it, there will be no bipartisan legislative work product.

The Democrats produced results (although limited results) BECAUSE they used their majority, the price of republican votes is zero results and no progress. Do you think THAT would have been a more successful session?

Let's not forget proper transportation funding

That is by far the biggest failing of this legislature, even if social issues like guns are sexier. Our sister cities are racing ahead of us on this issue. The fact that it couldn't be accomplished or wasn't prioritized by an overwhelmingly DFL state legislature and governor does not bode well for our ability to create vibrant, systainable, walkable twin cities in the near future.

Also let's not forget there will be another session next year

I'm disappointed with the progress Democrats made this year, but there will be another year, and more sessions.

Let me get this straight

Prof. Schultz thinks that the $1.6 billion in school shifts and tobacco debt should have been paid off in a bipartisan fashion. In what universe does he think that was possible?

So what is the GOP grade

For the session Schultz: F- or MIA?

Somewhere between the two.

Somewhere between the two.

Bipartisanship cannot be done unilaterally

You can fault the DFL for numerous things (e.g., dysfunctional leadership, inability to organize a coherent message, etc.), but a lack of bipartisanship is not one of them. Republicans are simply dead set against a bipartisanship, which they consider to be a weakness. My district has a Republican Representative who couldn't wait to not only rage against anything the DFL and the Governor did, but establish straw-man arguments and hyperbole to support their dark side. How are you supposed to work with someone like that?

Tough grades, sir

So, in other words, the DFL came into the session with a wide range of policy proposals. Some of these policy proposals did not make it through the session. Their time-management was very poor, though they did pass the required budget by the mandated deadline. The DFL did not pass comprehensive sales tax / property tax reforms (i.e. "structural reforms") and were not bipartisan enough.

On the former criticisms, it reads as if the session was quite successful, particularly as the same-gender marriage reforms - the antithesis of which was a proposed Constitutional amendment only a few months ago - was passed.

On the latter criticism, it is indeed difficult to pass bipartisan comprehensive reforms when one party refused to budge from their positions (logical from a potentially will-be-primaried standpoint).

I agree with others-- no

I agree with others-- no evidence of grade inflation here. This "you promised to be bipartisan" wail presumes that there was another party willing to seriously negotiate with the DFL-- quite a presumption.

And, although I'm guilty of plenty of typos myself, it's particularly ironic to see "terrible time-managed skills" and "anti-bulling legislation" in an article about grading. I hope you give your students a pass on their errors...

Bipartisanship

Let me point out that bipartisanship is not a goal I asserted for the DFL. It was, as you will recall, one that the Governor and the DFL placed on the agenda. Perhaps the GOP did not cooperate but if you make that one of your stated objectives and then fail to secure it then it is fair to be criticized for it.

Second, doing the budget on time is the minimum that is required to get a passing grade. The DFL did that and deserve to pass as a result. But doing what you are required to do is not the same as doing excellent work, at least not in the world that I live in.

Third, It was Dayton all along who said he wanted to pay back K-12 but then in the end did not do that. That should be counted as money owned but not paid back. The same is the case for the borrowing off of the tobacco bonds. We owe it and claiming that a gimmicky budget two years ago is balanced now by ignoring these debts is still gimmicky. Moreover, failing to reform the budget process does nothing to guarantee that more gimmicks will not occur in the future. We still count inflation for revenue purposes but not for obligations.

Finally, so many of the responses here get hung up on the bipartisanship issue that you ignore the broader argument being made--the squandering of the DFL to make real structural reforms and in some cases (campaign finance) a major setback in terms of reform. If the DFL was planning on acting in a unilateral fashion use that power to make real changes. We are investing more in education but (and I hate to say it) simply expending more money is not an answer. We should be asking what we are spending that money on, what results do we want, how will we get those results, and how will we measure progress. The GOP may not have had a game plan or a desire to cooperate but that does not excuse the DFL from having blown the change to do real change.

Sure...

... you can criticize them for not achieving bipartisanship, but that analysis has to be deeper than "the votes were all party-line, so the DFL failed".

The real measure is whether or not the DFL made legitimate, reasonable attempts to achieve bipartisan results and were rebuffed. I would argue there's a mixed bag there, depending on the particular issue you're looking at.

Take sales tax reform. There's been fairly broad agreement outside the legislature among policy wonks on both sides of the aisle that its something that should be done. Yet, when the Governor introduced his plan it was met with howls of outrage from Republicans and their aligned special interests -- who clearly made the political decision to oppose any sales tax reform instead of introducing their own sales tax reform plan that addressed their concerns about the Governor's proposal.

It's also interesting that when it come to bipartisanship, you're judging them on what you say is their standard, but when it comes to "structural reform", you're judging them on your standard. Legislative DFLers didn't really run on sales tax reform or significant education delivery reform -- the primary plank in the platform was raise taxes on the wealthy to devote more money to education. Dayton made little in specific promises regarding tax reform other than "raise taxes on the wealthy" and platitudes about "balancing the stool" before he unveiled his January budget.

If you judge DFLers based on what they actually ran on, they delivered much of it. As to whether or not it's what they should have done, your mileage may vary.

Nothing in your comment sways

My opinion that you are way off base with this article. The DFL has many different constuients who do not always agree on a variety of issues. Generally the minority of DFL legislators who buck the majority on an issue are not sent to hell, but the Republican lelegislators who buck the majority are completely condemned and washed out of the party. How in that atmosphere do you compromise? Get out of the ivory tower. Also, where was the grading for the 2011-2012 session?

Not a bad report card

Seems like a fairly reasonable report to me, and accurate. I especially agree that the revenue side is less stable since the income tax part of the "stool" is now even more dependent on less people.

If Governor Dayton vetoes the tax and spending bills, will the Legislature have "precipitated a government shutdown"?

Did you ever go there?

The Republicans used every parliamentary trick and stunt to delay the session. What they pulled was almost unprecedented and you blame the Democrats? The only thing the Dems failed at was underestimating how low the Republicans would stoop to hamstring things. Their ONLY goal in the last 72 hours was to force another special session so they could use it in a campaign. You need o go to the capital and see these jokers In person. You cannot reason with unreasonable people. And you cannot blame people for not coming up with real deals when the other side refuses. One needs to look no further than the sophomoric stunt of reading newspapers and snickering about it during the bonding bill. That is something I would expect out of high schoolers, which these jokers seem to be stuck at emotionally and intellectually.

Schultz gets a D+

For one thing, the whole idea of "grading" the DFL is disingenuous, it pretends that the DFL is an autonomous entity that is solely responsible for legislative outcomes, frankly, that's a bizarre premise.

I'm not impressed by Mr. Schultz's backpedaling on the bipartisan issue. Schultz made it major factor of his thesis, therefore he can't complain about reaction he's getting from his readers. Yes, the democrats put bipartisanship on the agenda, Schultz misses the fact that this DFL pledge actually prevented the structural changes and reform he was looking for. Dayton refused to sign several pieces of legislation such as some of the proposed election law changes unless they had bipartisan support.

In fact, the DFL kept it's bipartisan pledge, it was that pledge that prevented any real structural reform. You can complain about the lack of progress, but you can't blame that fiasco on a failure to pursue bipartisan legislation, and you certainly can't blame the DFL alone for that failure. The DFL can promise to pursue bipartisan legislation, they cannot control what republicans will vote for, and they would be idiots to pass regressive republican legislation let the republicans control the legislature.

Finally, we are not ignoring the failure of serious reform, most of us are simply aware of the republican obstruction that prevented it. I watched republicans spend more than an hour asking "questions" about a paint disposal provision in the environmental bill. Republican after republican stood ask questions like: "On line 12.5 is subsection 7, the language says: 'all paint shall be disposed of in an environmentally appropriate manor'. What do you mean by: 'paint'?" And then: "Where did you get that definition of 'paint'?" And this would go on for hours. And then after 15 minutes of "questions" the republican would end by declaring they would vote against the bill or amendment, and the next republican would stand and so it went for hours and hours. It's called a filibuster and republicans filibustered EVERYTHING. They debated one bill for something like 17 hours?

Yes, the democrats were disorganized and quarrelsome, but republican obstructionism ran out the clock. The DFL had decide on priorities, and the budget was the priority. Even then, super majority requirements strengthened republican obstruction and prevented much of the real reform many of us would like to have seen.

I guess the problem is Mr. Schultz, you seem to think you can grade the DFL without considering the structure and environment within which the DFL must operate. This is an exercise in absurdity. I would give your attempt a D+.