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Why the quality of Minnesota’s Legislature has declined

Four reasons the Legislature’s membership isn’t what it used to be.

MinnPost photo by James Nord

Along with many fellow Baby Boomers, I find myself engaging occasionally in the age-old (or is it old-age?) practice of reminiscing about “the good old days.” But hey, some things really were better in the days gone by.

One of them certainly is the Minnesota Legislature. During several recent visits of the Capitol, I was reminded not only how partisan and polarized the Legislature has become, but also how much the quality of the membership has declined.

In the late 1960s and 1970s, when I covered the Legislature, members of the two houses seemed able for the most part to work together and get things done for the betterment of the state.

Although rural conservatives dominated both houses, the Legislature enacted progressive laws that established the Metropolitan Council, the regional transit and wastewater systems and the Fiscal Disparities Act, Minnesota’s unique tax-base sharing law.

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They also passed laws creating the State Planning Agency, state Human Rights Department and the Pollution Control Agency. Clearly, they did not see government as the enemy; nor were they averse to raising taxes as a means for solving problems.

So what has transpired to produce such dramatic changes in the Legislature?

No party labels

First, until 1974, Minnesota legislators were elected on a nonpartisan basis. There were no party labels on the ballot, so voters had to learn something about the candidates to make an informed choice.

Legislators caucused as “Conservatives” and “Liberals,” though most of the former group regarded themselves as Republicans and most members of the latter group were DFLers. Still, they seemed able to work together and achieve bipartisan compromises on many issues. That slowly changed after the DFL gained control of both houses in 1972 and enacted party designation the following year

Odd-year sessions

Second, legislative sessions were held only in the odd-numbered years and legislators could more easily maintain careers in the private sector. While not all legislators were rocket scientists, the two houses had many members who were accomplished professionals and business people who brought considerable knowledge and expertise to the table.

Since members were not relying upon legislative service as their primary source of income, they also felt freer to exercise their own independent judgment.

This began to change after voter approval of the so-called “Flexible Session Amendment” in 1972.  Though it was intended only to permit annual sessions, the Legislature hasn’t skipped a year since. This led to the exodus of many mid-career members who did not care to, or could not afford to, devote full-time to legislative service.

Houses ideologically diverse

Third, the caucuses in the two houses were more ideologically diverse. The Republican caucus had members who were moderate and even liberal, while the DFL caucus had rural and blue-collar members who were moderate or even conservative.

In my view, this started to change after the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade in 1973. Both parties began applying litmus tests on the abortion issue, driving pro-choice moderates out of the Republican Party and pro-life moderates out of the DFL.

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A long list of pro-life DFLers – among them Norm Coleman, Tad Jude, Mike Menning and Glen Sherwood – switched parties. Similarly, pro-choice Republicans like Sheila Kiscaden and other moderates were marginalized or subjected to endorsement challenges.

It’s hard to imagine now, but Republicans actually dominated the Minneapolis and Hennepin County legislative delegations in the 1960s and early 1970s. This meant there were members of the Republican caucus who could speak up for the concerns of the core cities.

That’s no longer the case. Indeed, there hasn’t been a Republican legislator elected from either Minneapolis or St. Paul since 1982.

Got to know each other

A final reason for the increased polarization and divisiveness at the Capitol is that members of the two parties hardly get to know each other.

As the membership of the Legislature has become more metropolitan, fewer members of both parties are living in St. Paul and socializing with one another after hours. The so-called Marty gift-ban law enacted in 1994 also greatly reduced the number of interest-group dinners and receptions that members attend and interact with one another.

Members of the two parties sit across the aisle from one another in the House and Senate chambers. They have offices in separate locations. They have separate support staffs. They literally live in two different worlds.

In 2005-06, I served on a bipartisan task force on legislative reform chaired by former Senate DFL leader Roger Moe and former Republican state Chair Chris Georgascas.

In the course of our work, we consulted with experts from the Rutgers University Eagleton Institute for Public Policy and the National Council of State Legislatures. We also conducted a survey of legislators, legislative staff members and Capitol observers.

Our group offered a number of modest recommendations intended to promote greater bipartisan cooperation, increase social interaction and trust among members, build more discipline into the budgetary process, and attract and retain high-quality legislators. Not surprisingly, like a lot of reports , it was tucked away on legislators’ shelves and soon forgotten.

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I wouldn’t pretend that we had all the answers. However, it’s clear that there are a number of issues that must be addressed if the Minnesota Legislature is to once again be “a first-class institution that effectively serves the state’s citizens.”