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Three steps the Minnesota Legislature should take to dismantle the Capitol’s structural partisanship

How do we fix the gridlock? In part, we fix the rules and traditions that create the “winner take all” system.

Minnesota State Capitol
Minnesota State Capitol
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

As the legislative and campaign seasons collide this year, the politics that are always part of the process have had an increasingly intrusive role in governing. Some of this is a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the need to call the Legislature back repeatedly. But this is also an unintended consequence of how our state-level legislative bodies are organized in Minnesota.

During campaign season, partisanship, competition, and differing views of governance are appropriate – campaigns are contests, after all. In November voters will go to the polls and decide which candidates will win, but most important: who will control the State House and Senate.

There are a lot of benefits in winning a majority, which is why the parties work so hard to achieve that goal. However, the infrastructure that encourages continued partisanship and division after the polls close is a problem. The Minnesota Legislature should take three steps to dismantle the structural partisanship that currently exists at the Capitol. How do we fix the gridlock? In part, we fix the rules and traditions that create the “winner take all” system.

Integrate legislators’ offices

First, integrate legislators’ offices. Currently offices are segregated by body and party. At the start of each biennium, offices are distributed based on seniority – the majority members pick within their space, and the minority within theirs. Instead of encouraging that separation, we need more opportunities for members to connect informally and build relationships – say hello in the hall, make small talk while waiting for the microwave, share photos of their kids. The floors and wings that are currently divided should be mixed up and offices be picked by seniority across the chamber, not solely within caucuses.

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Or, as a more extreme fix, at the start of the 2021 session, do a lottery for offices that will become the permanent home base for that district moving forward – even if the person holding the seat changes, the office location would stay the same.

Depoliticize the staff

Second, it’s time to depoliticize the staff. Campaigning is about activism and winning. Legislating is about governing and coalition building. As long as the same people are doing jobs supporting both goals, with the opportunity to use one as a vehicle to advance the other, the culture at the Capitol isn’t going to get any better. Governing should not be about winning – or worse, obstructionism with the intent of denying the other side a win. Fiscal and legal staff are already nonpartisan, so reclassify committee administrators, legislative assistants, constituent services, and research to match.

Shannon Watson
Shannon Watson
Most important, eliminate partisan caucus communications departments. Currently, the caucuses have taxpayer-funded communications staff. Both the Senate and House have official nonpartisan media service departments – those should be more than sufficient for promoting the news of the government. The only reason for partisan communications departments to exist is to promote partisan talking points. Taxpayers should not be funding political operations at the Capitol. While this kind of communication is appropriate for campaigning, it is not necessary for governing, and as we’ve seen this year, is actually hurtful to the legislative process. If the parties want to promote their positions on issues outside the Capitol, they can. But having state employees, paid for by taxpayers, advancing partisan positions isn’t helpful. Stop paying for it and stop letting it drive more wedges into the governing process.

Reform the committees

Third, reform the committees. Instead of having all committees chaired by members of the majority party, have them co-chaired by members of the majority and minority. This would mean the co-chairs trade holding the gavel and running the meetings — much as members of conference committees do — and would share the responsibility of determining which bills get hearings. Having co-chairs and a nonpartisan committee administrator would also ensure that any omnibus bills coming out of committee would be created with input from members of both parties. (This move in and of itself could drastically reduce the number of amendments being proposed from the floor.)

Much has been talked about how this year’s bonding bill has been held up by the minority in the House. From my perspective, I’m not surprised. The 60% supermajority is the only issue on the agenda this year that requires the minority caucus’ participation and approval to pass. When you give a caucus one place to participate, a chair at only one table so to speak, of course they’re going to use it. When you only have one card to play, you make it count.

The only detriment in being in the minority party should be that you have to work harder to get members to vote for your ideas. But right now the structure in both chambers works against too many elected members and their constituents, just because they were elected to the minority.

A pandemic situation can’t be changed. But the structural issues that add to the dysfunction can. Even casual observers of the “inside baseball” inner workings at the Capitol know that there’s way too much campaigning that’s conflicting with governing. Let’s fix the system. Let’s reform the infrastructure to support a focus on governing for the people of Minnesota, and minimize the campaigning at the Capitol.

Shannon Watson serves as the director of public affairs at the Saint Paul Area Chamber of Commerce and is the founder of Definitely Someday. Watson worked on campaigns on both sides of the aisle for 20-plus years, as well as the National Conference of State Legislatures and the Minnesota Senate. She is a 2020-21 policy fellow at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

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