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A failing grade for the 2015 Minnesota legislative session

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.

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

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.

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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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