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Another Minnesota legislative session, another that goes to overtime: reflections on the causes

There are several reasons for the increasing dysfunction in Minnesota politics, and they all played out in the 2019 session.

Speaker Melissa Hortman
Speaker Melissa Hortman speaking to reporters Monday night following adjournment.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

Too many clichés describe where Minnesota politics is now. One can say that it was entirely predictable that the 2019 legislative session would not end with a final budget passed. In fact, as I argued two years ago, this is the new normal in Minnesota.

A quick review of recent Minnesota politics should prove that the state may now have the most dysfunctional legislative politics in its history, and over the last generation, it has one of the worst track performances of any state.

Of the now 53 special sessions that now have occurred or will this year since statehood, 24 (or 45 percent) were called to finish required budget work not completed during regular session. This suggests that getting all the work done during the constitutional deadline has always been a problem, but it has been even more so in the last 20 years.

Special sessions far more frequent

In the last 20 years special sessions have been far more frequent and have shifted from occurring on average once every four years (since statehood) to three out of four years. Since 1999, there have been 10 legislative sessions devoted to the budget; eight of them have required special sessions. We have had two partial governmental shutdowns (one under Gov. Mark Dayton in 2011, one under Gov. Tim Pawlenty in 2005), and a near shutdown under Gov. Jesse Ventura in 2001. Also under Pawlenty in 2009 there was a significant budget fight that involved his unallotment of money to balance the budget that was eventually struck down by the Minnesota Supreme Court in 2010. And in 2017 fights over the budget led Dayton to line-item veto the Legislature’s funding. Getting to yes in Minnesota is increasingly more problematic.

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The causes of dysfunction

There are several reasons for the increasing dysfunction in Minnesota politics, and they all played out in the 2019 session.

First, Minnesota’s partisan polarization mirrors national politics. The two major political parties have polarized down to the point where they represent distinct geopolitical regions in the state. This polarization divides along the issues of the role and purpose of government, taxes, spending and social issues. The Democrats and Republicans represent increasingly contrasting views about the world, and given the agenda of the House DFL and the Walz Administration, it was no surprise the Senate Republicans would oppose tax increases and other spending priorities.

photo of article author
David Schultz
With Minnesota as the only state in the national with a legislature split in terms of partisan control of the two chambers, rival views on government and what it should do were obviously going to cause problems. Winner-take-all politics is a feature of the new normal; one-party wins it all and it simply moves its agenda. Dayton and the DFL did that in 2013-2014, and no doubt Walz and the DFL are hoping 2020 elections do the same for them.

But partisan dysfunction is only one reason for the new normal. A second problem may be that government has become so complex that the budget process is broken. Maybe at one time the length of sessions was enough to put together a $1 billion, $10 billion, or even $25 billion budget, but it may simply be insufficient time to do it for a near $50 billion one with a part-time Legislature.

Third, as I have argued for nearly 15 years, the budget process is broken. It makes no sense to have a fiscal forecast, do a budget (with often a previous governor), inaugurate a new Legislature into session, wait several weeks for a gubernatorial budget, then wait a few more weeks for a new fiscal forecast and then a revised budget from the governor. By the time all this occurs, the Legislature has lost perhaps two months’ time. How the budget is made, along with timings and deadlines, must be fixed.

Fourth, legislators are human. They are prone to the same procrastination so many others are. Tough choices often await final, last-minute negotiations because humans simply prefer to avoid them. There seems to be a dearth of leadership or ability to corral legislators to overcoming an institutional time-management skill problem.

Fifth, the new normal is also a product of an increasingly flawed election process. Single-member, first-past-the-post elections encourage production of polarized safe legislative seats where individual representatives and senators have little incentive to work together. Additionally, the state has done little in the last 20 years to address issues such as special interest money, lobbyist influence, and other structural matters that corrupt the legislative process. The two major parties have been captured by group interests that effectively make compromise impossible, and our elections process only takes a bad problem and exacerbates it.

Finally, the new normal means that the electoral and political sting of legislative failure are gone. There is such a low expectation that the governor and Legislature will reach agreement on time that no one expects they will. Repeated shutdowns, missed deadlines, and other political fights mean that voters probably no longer punish representatives for special sessions, thereby meaning that legislative members too no longer fear it.

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Fixing dysfunction

There is no single silver bullet to cure the above dysfunction. Reforming the budget process, campaign finance reform, and ranked-choice voting are among the needed cures. Unfortunately, the very reasons the legislative process has become so dysfunctional and broken also bode against it being able to fix itself.

Maybe the longer-term the fix is simply demographics, where an increasingly urban state turns the state more DFL, allowing for one-party rule to prevail. Yet it is not a certainty that demographics are a political destiny to cure dysfunction – President Donald Trump and the GOP could be competitive in 2020 in Minnesota – leaving the new normal in place for years to come.

David Schultz is a Hamline University professor of political science and a visiting professor at the University of Minnesota Law School. His latest book is “Presidential Swing States: Why Only Ten Matter.” He writes the blog Schultz’s Take, where this commentary originally appeared.


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