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Still waiting for real change from the DFL Legislature

The DFL is proving to be timid, cautious and inept at governing; it seems to have defined its mandate as more rejection of the GOP for over-reach than a call for change.

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.
MinnPost photo by James Nord

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.

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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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