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Making sense of the legislative session: A tale in four parts

The DFL acted the way Democrats are expected to act, and they made no real missteps or mistakes in the process.

Gov. Mark Dayton wanted tax cuts and got them, despite the desire of Tom Bakk to save more of the surplus.
MinnPost photo by Bill Kelley

Legislative sessions in Minnesota produce defining themes. These narratives allow observers to make sense out the political debates and the policies that emerge. Often these narratives also influence the legislators themselves, acting almost as invisible hands that move participants in ways that look as if they are serving broader goals. The 2014 legislative session too had its defining themes; in this case four stand out.

The DFL delivered the goods

For good or bad, the DFL delivered on its promises because DFLers were in charge. This is the result of unified government. When all is told, the Democrats largely did what they promised. They raised the minimum wage, passed anti-bullying legislation, cut taxes, passed a massive bonding bill, and also did more. 

DFLers acted the way Democrats are expected to act, and they made no real missteps or mistakes in the process. They did fail to address the constitutional problems with the civil-commitment process for sexual offenders, but no one seriously thought they would do that in an election year. They also failed miserably to pass new disclosure laws for campaigns and elections, but outside Rep. Ryan Winker and Sen. John Marty, DFLers seem to have little appetite  for government ethics issues. But come November they will tell the voters that they did what they aimed to do, that it bettered Minnesota, and that because of that they deserve to retain single-party control.

But for all that they did, the Republicans will use it against them. All of the accomplishments or victories that the DFL will call triumphs the Republicans will say is the reason they should be elected. They will argue that the DFL damaged the economy with a higher minimum wage, that the tax cuts are illusionary given the massive increases the year before, that  the Democrats overreached into social issues, and that the bonding bill was simply an example of wasteful pork to buy votes.

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They will also try to talk about the botched rollout of MNsure and excess spending on a new Senate office building. Republicans will say the DFL acted like Democrats – as tax-and-spend liberals – and that their party has a better or different vision on state government. Republicans and Democrats will offer contrasting views on the role of the state in Minnesota, with both parties making the election a referendum on the DFL’s performance.

Dayton is in charge

What became clear here is the extent to which Dayton is in charge – not only as governor but also in terms of the legislative session. His agenda largely defined what happened. 

Dayton wanted tax cuts and got them, despite the desire of Tom Bakk to save more of the surplus. Dayton wanted a larger bonding bill, and he got it. Dayton was originally opposed to medical marijuana, and the bill was dead until late in the session when he changed his mind and the policy got a second wind. Dayton also used the bully pulpit effectively to structure what would go into many of the other laws that were passed.

In his first two years, the governor often took a passive role in the legislative process. Think about the law legalizing same-sex marriage. For much of that debate he simply said that if the Legislature passed the law he would sign it. Dayton took that position on many bills. But this session he went from being a passive participant to an active force in the Legislature.

Suburban soccer moms win (sort of)

Suburbs are the battle ground for political power and control in Minnesota, and the votes that drive who wins there are the soccer moms. The suburban soccer mom is the single most important  swing voter in the state, and whoever wins or controls their vote wins statewide office and control of the Legislature.

Women in general, but especially soccer moms, are central to Democrat and DFL success. Nationally there is a huge gender gap, with women far more likely to vote for Democrats than Republicans. Suburban women have left the Republican Party for many reasons – reproductive rights, health care, and other family security issues, even while their male counterparts stay with the GOP. Women are a larger percentage of the electorate than men, and in presidential election years they show up to vote. But in non- presidential years, they do not.

In part that is why Democrats do so badly in midterm elections. This was the case in 2010 when Democrats nationally and in Minnesota were routed, but Dayton managed to capture enough female voters to win. Come November 2014  what women will do – vote or stay home – will determine the fate of the Democrats.

It should not come as a surprise, then, that in 2014 the DFL did what it could to reach out to female voters, giving them a reason to vote Democrat. For the most part, women did well this session, and one could say that the soccer mom in Edina with three kids was the winner. Consider four pieces of legislation:

  • First, the passage of the anti-bulling legislation addressed an issue of core concern to mothers: their children being bullied. No parent wants their children bullied, but this is an issue that resonates with moms more than dads.
  • Second, the Women’s Economic Security Act was a high-profile bill aimed to eliminate employment and economic barriers facing women such as child care, discrimination and sexual-harassment issues. 
  • Third, legalization of  medical marijuana was entirely an issue driven by women. The so-called “mommy lobby” was instrumental in overcoming the governor’s reluctance in opposing the law-enforcement community (one of his biggest supporters). In fact, not until after Dayton was confronted with women telling stories about how their children needed medical marijuana did he move. The mommy lobby gave the DFL cover on this issue.
  • The one surprise? The DFL did not pass the Toxic Chemicals bill, a law that would have given parents more information about children’s products to disclose the presence of chemicals of concern in them. This should have been a no-brainer, but it failed, perhaps due the lobbying presence of Minnesota’s  powerful food industry. But on balance, suburban women did well.

Evidence-based policy

President Ronald Reagan once said facts were stubborn things. Facts can empower, but often facts — or at least certain kinds of facts — have little impact on decisions. Many of us hope that legislators will make policy based on evidence, but as I have written in “American Politics in the Age of Ignorance: Why Lawmakers Choose Belief Over Research,” there are many reasons why this is often not the case. Alternatively, what lawmakers consider facts is different from what social scientists or scientists consider facts. Consider again the medical marijuana bill.

The medical profession is absolutely correct — there is no evidence substantiating the therapeutic effects of medical marijuana. The type of evidence they are looking for is the classic controlled experiment, perhaps a double-blind test involving placebos. But this type of evidence is seldom what moves policymakers. For them, personal stories from constituents, often anecdotal, are seen as compelling and powerful. Moms testifying before the Legislature with children in hand, telling personal stories about how medical marijuana helped their children, is hard to resist. These political facts are more likely to move public officials than the kind that sway doctors and scientists, and they were enough to move the governor and Legislature this term on a host of issues that might otherwise lack real evidentiary support. It is these kind of political facts that also move voters.

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Thus, when it comes time to spin the story of the 2014 Minnesota legislative session, the above four narratives define what happened. How compelling these stories are, what they mean, and how the parties will frame them, will determine to a large extent who wins the 2014 elections.

David Schultz is a Hamline University professor of political science and author of “Election Law and Democratic Theory” (Ashgate, 2014) and “American Politics in the Age of Ignorance” (Macmillan, 2013). He blogs at Schultz’s Take, where this commentary first appeared. 


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