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A failing grade for the 2015 Minnesota legislative session

MinnPost photo by Briana Bierschbach
The governor and the Legislature largely failed to deliver on anything.

The 2015 Minnesota legislative session was a failure — an F grade for all in my line of work. No one really got what they wanted — and not because there was compromise. Gov. Mark Dayton did not get universal pre-K, a transportation bill, a bonding bill, or really much of anything else. The House GOP wanted $2 billion in tax cuts, and infrastructure money and more goodies for Greater Minnesota, and they failed. I have yet to figure out what the Senate Democrats wanted, but they didn’t get it.

schultz portrait
David Schultz

The governor and the Legislature largely failed to deliver on anything. The state failed to deal with passing a responsible budget in a timely fashion. It is full of gimmicks. They range anywhere from acting as if there was a real surplus and then squandering it to House Republicans passing a phony budget that robs money from one place and giving it to another and calling it an increase. But think about pressing issues not addressed – transportation funding and infrastructure, civil commitment for sex offenders, and MnSure — and it is hard to conclude that this was a good session. Welcome to the new Minnesota normal.

A crisis in leadership

Poor time management and leadership defined this session. Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk and Speaker Kurt Daudt did not enter into negotiations until very late in the session. Bakk and the Democrats again proved horrible at messaging, while Daudt and the Republicans could not decide if they wanted to play pork-barrel politics to get goodies for their constituents or simply cut taxes. In the end they did neither.

As for Dayton, he was largely uninvolved in the legislative process and never really made it clear what he wanted. Recall his State of the State address where he said he had lots of priorities? If everything is a priority, then nothing is. Daudt is correct that if Dayton had wanted universal pre-K to be his main priority he should have said that months ago and worked to line up support for it. He never did. But Dayton also seemed to pout a lot. Recall his earlier flare-up with Bakk — and then his actions in the closing days sounded more like “I’ll take my bat and ball and go home if I do not get what I want.”

What Dayton ignored is that you have to create political incentives for legislators to act, especially members of the opposite party, and he never did that. He thought that he had a mandate and could simply push legislators in line. That is why he did not get what he wanted, and that is why he still might not get what he wants in a special session. Memories of Senate Democrats and House Republicans teaming up to overturn Gov. Jesse Ventura’s vetoes loom on the horizon if Dayton is not careful.

The new normal and why

But this session seems less of an outlier when one keeps in mind, dating back to the Ventura era, the repeated number of times the state has witnessed shutdowns, near shutdowns, failed unallotments, and special sessions that reach budget accords so late that it makes it difficult for schools and local governments to plan. One should also not forget all the phony budgets, cost shifts, and kicking problems down the road that have been part of the new Minnesota Normal. Partisanship and polarization also were factors this year (and in the past), but they only exacerbated three underlying problems in Minnesota politics. First, an archaic and broken budget process. Second, the entrenched special interests that make it difficult for the two parties to compromise. Third, the disparate electoral incentives of the governor, Senate, and the House.

Broken budget process

The budget process is broken. Minnesota is trying to do a 21st-century budget with a horse-and-buggy process. The process in place is one that perhaps once worked well 30 or 40 years ago, when the budget was half of what it was and nowhere near as complex as it is now. The constitutional mandate for the length of the session goes back to the 19th century, when we still had this image of farmer-legislators who needed to adjourn in time to get their spring crops in. A century ago one did not need as much time as is now required to pass a budget and debate legislation. There was simply less to do.

The complexity of the budget process is now so great that even under the best of circumstances it is difficult to get it done in just a few months. But add to that some other problems. First, the increased complexity of the budget and what the state does makes it harder and harder for legislators to master it in a short period of time. We had elections in November, producing new legislators and House majority. How do we expect them from day one to understand how to govern and what Minnesota government does? Few of us are ready to do our jobs well in the first few months. There is a learning curve, and for state legislators that curve is the budget session. It would make far more sense to have the budget done in the second year of office, giving legislators ample time to adjust and learn.

Timing should be changed

It’s also about timing. The governor generally does not release a budget until late January; the final fiscal forecast, which is the basis of the budget, comes out late March; and then a revised governor’s budget based on the forecast is produced. At this point already two months have been wasted in the budget year. The timing of when the legislature comes into session, the governor releases a budget, and the fiscal forecast occurs need to be changed because their present order simply encourages procrastination.

But a second underlying problem is the way money and special-interest influence have made it impossible for the two parties to reach agreement. Both the Democrats and Republicans have interest groups supporting them, encouraging them to stick to their guns and not negotiate. It’s not about the gift ban law making it impossible for legislators of different parties to swill together at the Kelly Inn that prevents them from working together, it is about them being unable to resist the pressures from their constituent groups to forge compromises.

Differing political incentives

Finally, as this session reveals, there are contrasting electoral incentives that have driven the House, Senate, and governor in different directions. The House and Senate both face 2016 elections and therefore have incentives to cooperate. But in other years the four- and two-year terms put the electoral interests of the two chambers in conflict. This year, moreover, Dayton’s interests contrast with the interests of legislators – he is not up for election, perhaps ever again – and he can push for issues that legislators cannot.

Overall, many factors explain why this session ended the way it did and why it deserves an F grade, and I am not even sure an A for effort is in order.

Three final thoughts

With Dayton’s veto, does that mean there will be no funding and school? No. Remember that the State Constitution mandates the Legislature to fund a “thorough and efficient system of public schools.” If no agreement is reached the courts will settle this.

Maybe now the state will think about passing the automatic continuing resolution that requires the state to continuing funding programs at the same level into the next budget year if no budget is agreement upon.

Finally, where will the Legislature go for special session if the Capitol is closed? The session has to be in St. Paul. The governor proposes tents for the front lawn. I will make a pitch for them to move down the street to my school – Hamline. Plenty of parking and space to meet, and food no worse than Ulcer Gulch at the Capitol!

David Schultz is a Hamline University professor of political science and the 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 piece first appeared. 


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Comments (11)

  1. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 05/20/2015 - 08:18 am.

    Special session location

    I think they should have the special session at the Duluth convention center.

  2. Submitted by Jim Halonen on 05/20/2015 - 09:15 am.

    Session was a good one

    For the vast majority of Minnesotans, a legislature that does “nothing”, means that it was a good session. If a lot gets done, it usually means some special interest segment of the population is getting their lobbying efforts through.

  3. Submitted by Lynnell Mickelsen on 05/20/2015 - 10:02 am.

    Great piece, Dr. Schultz

    I really appreciate the analysis.

    On a minor note, I support the tent on the front lawn option and think we should go all-out with a circus theme. Magicians. Acrobats. Flaming hoops. Cotton candy. The whole nine yards.

    • Submitted by Steve Titterud on 05/20/2015 - 01:18 pm.

      How about the State Fairgrounds, in the Hippodrome??

      This legislative session has produced mainly horse biscuits, so everyone will feel right at home.

  4. Submitted by Mike Worcester on 05/20/2015 - 10:54 am.

    A Longer Session?

    Thoughtful analysis as always Dr. Schultz!

    Question – would you propose the legislature meet in a longer session? Personally I’m not sure it would help as this Greek dancing approach to how our they work never seems to change. They have almost half-a-year of formal sessions, plus committee meetings and “study” sessions that go year-round.

    The snide side of me says put in a 40+/hour work week like many of us, cut down on the excessive time off (do they really need a full week at Passover/Easter?), and then perhaps there would not be this maddeningly inefficient rush to the last hour of the session.

    Just a couple of random thoughts.

  5. Submitted by george woytanowitz on 05/20/2015 - 11:09 am.

    special session location

    Let one of our turkey farmers donate an empty facility for the special session.

    Symbolically, having the legislature meet in a location usually inhabited by turkeys would be priceless.

  6. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 05/20/2015 - 11:33 am.

    Next election – run on it!

    Thankfully the GOP held firm and refused to pass a DFL inspired gas tax that would have especially hit the poor and middle class. I though the DFL wants to protect the poor and middle class?

    May the DFL have the political courage run for election as champions of the 22 cent per gallon gas tax

    • Submitted by Logan Foreman on 05/20/2015 - 10:26 pm.

      Since when does the GOP

      Care about the poor and middle class? All this session proved is the GOP does not care whatsoever about infrastructure, transportation or out state Minnesotans.

  7. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 05/20/2015 - 12:04 pm.

    Longer sessions

    The fact of the matter is that for many legislators, the legislature is a full time job, one they work at pretty hard throughout the year, and not just during the session. In some ways, making the legislative session longer, which involves a lot of time spent by legislators sitting around on the floor, playing with their iPads, might lead to less, not more substantive work.

    There has been a lot of grumping about time management lately. I think it would be fair to say that what we have here among the leadership group is a less than optimal mix of personalities. When I saw that picture of Dayton, Bakk, and Daudt, together on a boat, I was amazed that the thing wasn’t capsized. As a movie fan, I thought that was the most fretful voyage since Montgomery Clift went boating with Shelley Winters. That said, time in a legislative context is both arbitrary and artificial. Once a bill or a deal is enacted it stands on it’s own and it doesn’t matter at all how long it took to enact it.

  8. Submitted by Kathleen Doran-Norton on 05/20/2015 - 12:21 pm.

    And kudos

    …to the House author who emailed other members with extensive changes to the energy and ag budget bill without telling the members he was doing that shortly before midnight – and then brought it up on the floor 3 minutes before the end of session.

    And a special prize for the members who passed the bill without reading it. Whoof! The more I read through it the worse it gets…but it’s sure got a lot of goodies for monopolies.

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