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The Minnesota legislative process: still crazy after all these years

There are two causes explaining the rise of a new normal. The first is a growing ideological divide over the nature of government. The second is structural.

Gov. Tim Walz, with budget agreement in hand, leading Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka and House Speaker Melissa Hortman to a May 17 news conference.
Gov. Tim Walz, with agreement on budget targets in hand, leading Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka and House Speaker Melissa Hortman to Monday's news conference.
The 2021 regular session of the Minnesota Legislature limped to an end without passing a balanced budget. No news here — it was entirely predictable. With the exception of the 2013 budget session, not since 1999 – the first year of Jesse Ventura’s term as governor – has a budget session of the Minnesota Legislature ended on time without a special session, partial governmental shutdown, or a controversial ending such as in 2009, when Gov. Tim Pawlenty used his unallotment power (subsequently declared illegal by the Minnesota Supreme Court) to balance the budget.

I first wrote this blog on May 21, 2011 – exactly 10 years ago. Nothing has changed in a decade.

What has emerged is the new normal for Minnesota politics. The new normal is that the completion of the budget does not occur by the constitutionally mandated deadline in May but instead by July 1 – the commencement of the new budget year. That seems to be the new deadline. But even then, that date, like Oct. 1 for the federal government, appears more suggestive than drop-dead. A threatened partial shutdown in 2003 and then a real one in 2007 and 2011 also eased the stigma of missing July 1.

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Why the new normal?

The question becomes why? Why has the new normal emerged? One answer is divided government, yet even back to the days when Rudy Perpich was governor and the DFL controlled the Legislature there were special sessions to address the budget. Under Arne Carlson and then Ventura they became more frequent, and then under Pawlenty and Mark Dayton they emerged as the new normal. With Tim Walz, the same pattern. No, divided government is only a partial answer.

There are two causes explaining the rise of the new normal. The first is a growing ideological divide over the nature of government. The second is structural, questioning the efficacy of the current budget process.

The governor and the split Legislature are as far apart today as they were in January regarding all the essentials over the budget. It is about dollars and taxes, yes, but it is also about other fundamental divides in America, of which Minnesota is a perfect microcosm as the only legislature in the nation where one party holds control of one chamber, another party control of the other.

Rival views of government vs. the market

At the heart of the dispute is a basic difference in their rival views of the government versus the market. The GOP generally seems to see government and taxes as bad, an intrusion upon the wisdom and functioning of markets. Let markets act and they will generate jobs prosperity and solve the basic problems of society. For Walz and the DFL, while market solutions and the private sector are the preferred places to produce jobs and make decisions, they recognize markets fail. Markets fail to address needs of equity. They produce inequities in wealth and income distribution, they fail to address core problems of education funding and disparities, and they fail to address problems in infrastructure investment.

No, it does not look like the GOP wants no government. Many still find it necessary to hire police and enforce basic laws, and apparently to enact laws to prevent same-sex couples from marrying and women from terminating pregnancies or to give tax breaks to the wealthy. The real difference between the GOP and Walz and the DFL is over how much government and what government should do in our society. It is a debate between rivaling views — government versus the market, the individual versus society.

We live in a society now where everything is a partisan divide — yes or no, with no in between. Police reform, face masks, vaccines, marijuana — you name it, there is a divide and no incentive to compromise. With barely 10% of the State House and Senate seats truly swing seats, most are in firm partisan control of one party and there is no incentive to compromise. Conversely, compromise means facing a primary opponent from the left or right. One cannot give in — it is a sign of weakness.

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The debate over “why government” is ideological. Arising simultaneously are two other phenomena aggravating the debate over why government – the triumph of ideology over pragmatism and party polarization.

Thus, part of the new normal is that no negotiations can take place in public. Dating back at least to Dayton, all compromise is behind closed doors, often out of session, involving the governor and chamber leaders. New normal means less transparency and open government.

Combine politically polarized parties with a take-no-prisoners ideological divide over the role of government and what do you get?

A flawed budget process

But the polarization is only one problem. The second is the flawed budget process in Minnesota. I have been arguing this point for nearly 20 years.

It is a budget process built for the horse and buggy days trying to operate in the 21st century. Government is so much more complex, the budget numbers so much larger, the functions more diverse, that it is perhaps impossible to reach consensus and make decisions between the beginning of January and the first Monday following the third Saturday in May in any year. There simply may not be enough time to do the budget by law.

But think also how flawed the current budget process is right now. The old governor makes the initial budget. The new governor is elected and needs to update it to reflect his or her priorities and the fiscal forecast in November. The Legislature comes to work in early January and then it waits until late January or so for the governor to release the budget. Then they all wait until late February for the updated fiscal forecast.

photo of article author
David Schultz
Thus, it is not until late February or March that the work on the budget commences. And even then, there are separate hearings in the House and Senate, forcing conference committees to act. The budget also is really 10 separate bills, with spending distinct from taxation, and no real work gets done until there are agreements on the different spending targets for each of the areas such as HHS, K-12, and so on.

Sound confusing? It is. It is also inefficient. At least two months are wasted at the beginning of every budget cycle waiting for the governor’s budget, the fiscal forecast, and then agreement on budget targets. Now add more wrinkle: Budgets are created right after state elections when often many new legislators or constitutional officers are elected. They are green, often learning on the job while creating a new budget. In a distant past when life and budgets were less complicated (and smaller), perhaps it was possible to do all this with a part-time citizen Legislature. But those days have passed. A new budget process is needed, with new timelines and ways to move the work along.

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A decade or more ago I proposed solutions to the process. Change the timing of events. Move the budget to the second year of the session to allow new legislators to learn their jobs. Adopt, as they have in Wisconsin, an automatic continuing resolution to extend the current budget into the next fiscal year to prevent shutdowns. There are other reform ideas too, but no will to change.

Someone once said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results. Politically this is what we’ve been doing in Minnesota for more than 20 years. If this is not politically insane or crazy, I do not know what is.

David Schultz is a Hamline University professor of political science. He writes the blog Schultz’s Take, where this commentary first appeared. Schultz’s latest book is “Presidential Swing States: Why Only Ten Matter.” 

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