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The entirely predictable Minnesota special session

It is only those legislators who come from swing districts – those with a real chance to flip from one party to another – who have an incentive to compromise.

Beyond the fact that legislators suffer from a typical human trait to procrastinate to the last minute, the budget process makes no sense.
MinnPost photo by Briana Bierschbach

A special session for the Minnesota State Legislature was entirely predictable. One could practically guarantee after the 2016 elections that with a Democratic governor and a Republican Legislature a special session was likely, and a partial governmental shutdown again a real possibility. While the tentative budget deal brokered at 11:50 Monday night — just minutes before adjournment — could fall apart, it looks for now that the worst scenario has been averted.

schultz portrait
David Schultz

Yet no one should take this deal as a sign of victory; instead, it points yet again to many underlying failures in the budget process in Minnesota — failures that have created what I have called for years the new normal. The new normal refers to a process dating back 20 years where special sessions, government shutdowns, and failed legislative sessions are the rule and not the exception. So why yet again did the Legislature miss its deadline?  Why the new normal?

Budgets reflect values. They reflect priorities that different individuals or political parties have regarding what programs are to be funded and for how much, and what public policies they want to see for the state. Budgets are political visions. The new normal in Minnesota reflects a changing political climate in the state that started about 20 years ago. This is no longer a solidly DFL state. As the shifting partisan control of the governor’s office and Legislature has shown over the last 20 years, Minnesota is a politically competitive and divided state. Hillary Clinton’s relatively narrow presidential victory over Trump in the state in 2016 demonstrated that.

Clear patterns of DFL and GOP control

Look at a map of Minnesota. It reveals from the presidency down to legislative and local races clear patterns of DFL and GOP control.  More important, the two major parties are polarized along a range of issues ranging from health care to mass transportation, taxes, guns, abortion, and preschool funding. The two parties are relatively equally divided in strength and along their values, making compromise difficult.

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Secondly, there is a collective action problem. There is a collective interest in compromising and reaching political agreement in a timely fashion, but there is little individual incentive to compromise. Among the 201 seats in the Minnesota Legislature, no more than about 15 to 20 in the House and perhaps a maximum of 10 in the Senate are from swing districts. The remainder are strongly Democratic or Republican, representing districts where legislators are elected to stand firm on their partisan views.

It is only those legislators who come from swing districts – those with a real chance to flip from one party to another – who have an incentive to compromise. Strong partisanship in one of these districts is a political liability. A paucity of swing seats means less pressure to compromise, and throw in strong party government in the state and even in those swing seats there is powerful pressure to vote straight party line.

A leadership issue

There is also a leadership issue here. While parties or party polarization may be strong, leadership is weak in the sense of being able to prevent individual members of the Legislature from offering bills to appease interest groups or constituents. Moreover, safe-seat legislators are less dependent on party leadership and can pursue or push special legislation, often without fear that leadership will punish them for it.

But finally, as I have argued for more than a decade, there is a structural problem with the budget process that reinforces the values and political polarization. The budget process is antiquated. This is the same budget process that has been in place for decades; it is a horse and buggy process trying to operate in the 21st century. It was designed when state government did far less than it does now, when budgets were a tenth or less of what they are now. It is a process premised upon the belief that part-time farmer legislators could show up for a few months, vote yea and nay, and then go back and plant their crops.  

None of this reflects reality. The budget process is complex, time consuming, and requires technical knowledge that is way beyond perhaps what we can expect of legislators, especially those first elected in November and then two months later asked to master state government and pass a budget. Simply put, government may just be too complex to legislate and budget within the 120 constitutional day limit drawn up for the state in a Norman Rockwell era.

The budget process makes no sense

Beyond the fact that legislators suffer from a typical human trait to procrastinate to the last minute, the budget process makes no sense. Legislators take office the beginning of January, wait a month for the governor’s budget, then wait another month for the fiscal forecast. Real budget work does not even start until March – halfway through the session, and even then, until budget targets for the 10 omnibus bills are decided, few details can be worked out.  

Over the years, half of the budget session has been wasted on passing bills to legalize Texas Hold’em card games or Sunday liquor sales. Moreover, because the budget process is so decentralized, it is hard to control and discipline, and the collective disregard for the constitutional single-subject rule simply means that policy gets mixed into budgets, and, in many ways, no one has control over the budget until such time as the parties have taken their predictable ideological votes to please their bases before they begin to think about compromising.

Budget process reform is imperative, including mandating automatic continuing resolutions to finance the government to advert shutdowns. But even structural reform will not address the values divide in the state and the peculiar political incentives that encourage the two sides to fight and not compromise.

David Schultz is a Hamline University professor of political science. His latest book is “Presidential Swing States: Why Only Ten Matter.”  He blogs at Schultz’s Take, where a version of this piece first appeared.   


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