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Let’s do a ‘Doors Open’ on legislative sausage-making

The most prominent examples of the bipartisan pitch has involved presenting otherwise liberal issues by coalitions that ostensibly appeal to both parties.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Minnesota State Capitol
Last weekend Minnesotans saw civics on display in two very different ways across the Twin Cities.

In St. Paul, Gov. Tim Walz, House Speaker Melissa Ann Hortman and Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka holed up in the Capitol to hammer out a budget deal. The three stayed almost entirely cloistered, even skipping the traditional end-of-session appearance on TPT’s Almanac that governors and legislative leaders of both parties have done together for decades.

Meanwhile in Minneapolis, a new citywide event called Doors Open Minneapolis got 115 businesses, artist studios, and government buildings to welcome the public deep into their spaces for tours and open houses.

Inspired by similar events in Chicago and Milwaukee, Doors Open Minneapolis mastermind Scott Mayer said he wanted to a civic celebration “that really got people thinking about why this is a great city to live in.” The best way to do that, he thought, was to invite people to see and explore the city for themselves.       

‘Ohhhs’ and ‘Ahhhs’ all day

I had the opportunity to lead a tour group including some longtime Minneapolitians and two international visitors to five unique spaces across the city. We navigated big crowds lining up to see the magic of the post office sorting mail, the robots responsible for moving huge stacks of money from vault to vault in the Federal Reserve, and how the oldest hydroelectric plant on the Mississippi River still generates power after more than a 111 years.

Tane Danger
Tane Danger
I heard “Ohhhs …” and “Ahhhs …” and “I didn’t know that …” all day.

The idea that people will feel more invested in their municipal spaces if they can see them for themselves isn’t new. When the modern sewers of Paris opened in the 19th century, there was a public outcry over the cost of such a huge public infrastructure project (sound familiar?). The city’s response was to invite the public to see what they were paying for. In 1889, Paris began offering twice-monthly tours of the sewer system, giving the public access to the tunnels beneath the city by wagon — and boat!

The outcry over the cost dissipated as the public got to see firsthand how the sewers worked. The tours of Paris’ sewers were such a success they are still offered today – a must-see if you visit Paris.

An especially secretive process

I am not suggesting that  Walz and legislative leaders should have held their budget negotiations on the lawn of the Capitol, surrounded by television cameras, lobbyists and public tour groups. Yet even veteran Minnesota political watchers have observed that this year’s process was secretive, even compared to previous end-of-session negotiations. Minnesota leaders could let us see a lot more of their sausage-making, and should next year.

In the meantime, our political leaders would do well to open the doors for the public to see up close what’s in the deals they struck.

Show us what a 1.8 percent tax on medical providers is going to pay for in terms of medical assistance and healthcare.

What will a 2 percent per-pupil education funding increase mean in the classroom for teachers and students?

Invite us to see the kinds of housing projects a $500 million bonding bill will fund – maybe even literally open them up for the public to tour!

Show us what the deal won’t take care of

And just as Doors Open let folks see the cracked plaster and aging foundations of some of our sometimes neglected historic buildings, political leaders should let us in to see what their budget deal won’t take care of. What will no new revenue for roads, bridges, and transit look like in terms of crumbling infrastructure and increased traffic and congestion?

In the end, this transparency will make us all feel more connected to and invested in the work of our state government.

Doors Open Minneapolis showed that Minnesotans are curious, engaged, and want to know more about how their cities and state work. Legislators and the governor should take us up on it.

Tane Danger is the co-founder of The Theater of Public Policy and a 2016 M.P.P. graduate of the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Andrew Kearney on 05/25/2019 - 12:40 pm.

    I love our press in this country and in our state but I think they are obsessed with transparency. They want to be in every meeting and every building at all levels of government. Not having the resources to do that they at least want the right to be there. What this otherwise well done article and the press don’t remember is we are NOT a democracy; we are a democratic republic. In this form of government the citizen willingly gives up the right to be in on every decision but rather elect representatives to do so. By extension and logic we also give up the right to watch it all like a mouse in the corner, too. I think we’re about right for transparency. Some close door meetings at the end of session are OK with me and perfectly justified in our form of republican government

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 05/28/2019 - 09:01 am.

      “In this form of government the citizen willingly gives up the right to be in on every decision but rather elect representatives to do so.”

      No, we don’t. We give up our right to have a direct vote on every issue, but we certainly don’t give up our right to be able to make informed decisions about the representatives who work on those issues.

      Sometimes, knowing how a decision is made is just as important as knowing what the decision is.

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