If you didn’t don purple and cheer for a new, publicly subsidized stadium for the Vikings, the 2012 session of the Minnesota Legislature was long on rhetoric and short on results.
This year’s Legislature makes the 2012 lineup of the Minnesota Twins look productive by comparison. Among the session’s dubious achievements: Enactment of bills allowing the sale of beer at the University of Minnesota’s football stadium, and expanded gambling opportunities in bars, Canterbury Park racetrack and Indian casinos.
Alas, a bill that would have allowed the sale of more powerful fireworks in Minnesota was vetoed. Altogether, it was a mediocre performance by a legislature of a state once heralded in by Time magazine as “The State that Works.”
For a change, the Legislature was not compelled to address a shortfall in the state’s general fund budget. Indeed, a revised forecast issued in February showed the budget outlook for 2012-13 had improved by $323 million (although the state still has a projected $1.1 billion shortfall for the next biennium).
Instead, the session was dominated by the stadium debate that would not end. It was a political soap opera that competed with the Amy Senser prosecution for public attention, with major twists in the plot almost daily and cameo appearances by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell as well as several Vikings players.
Dayton’s No. 1 priority
DFL Gov. Mark Dayton made the$975 million “People’s Stadium” his No. 1 priority, pushing for its approval almost to the exclusion of any other initiatives.
“The big accomplishment of the session was the Vikings stadium, and that’s a victory for the governor,” said Steven Schier, a political science professor at Carleton College. “He staked his political capital on it and he won. You have to give him credit for that.”
Of course, there were plenty of DFLers who weren’t enthused about the idea of providing nearly $500 million in public subsidies for the economic benefit of millionaire players and billionaire owners. Sen. John Marty of Roseville conveyed their sentiments, saying the bill’s approval “says something is tragically wrong with our priorities.”
Some Republican legislative leaders, most notably House Speaker Kurt Zellers, were less than helpful on the stadium issue, leaving them room to run away from it in this fall’s legislative elections.
Early in the session, there was considerable talk about the need for the state to help create jobs and spark economic growth.
“If we cooperate, if we share our best ideas, if we exchange our rigid ideologies for our shared ideas, we will revitalize our state,” Dayton declared in his second State of the State address.
The DFL governor offered a three-pronged “jobs initiative” – tax credits to encourage employers to hire the unemployed, veterans and recent college graduates; a $775 million bonding bill to finance state construction projects, and funding for a new Vikings stadium.
Republicans countered late in the session with their “smokin’ hot” tax bill, providing tax relief primarily for business. Dayton vetoed that measure and the Republicans followed with a scaled-back version, while largely ignoring the governor’s tax proposals.
In the end, Dayton got his Vikings stadium as well as a slimmed down, $496 million bonding bill. However, it included no money for high-profile projects such as the proposed Southwest Corridor light-rail transit (LRT) line, a new physics and nanotechnology building for the University of Minnesota, renovation of Nicollet Mall in downtown Minneapolis or a new Saints ballpark in downtown St. Paul.
Jobs and the economy
The Vikings stadium bill and the bonding measure will no doubt create jobs for the construction industry. But it is debatable whether any legislation passed this year will have a major impact on the economy.
Even a billion-dollar stadium is a “drop in the economic bucket” in a state with an annual gross domestic product of more than $270 billion, said economist Arthur Rolnick, a senior fellow at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute and former senior vice president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis.
Moreover, Rolnick said, you have to look at where those dollars come from. “If you take money from Peter to pay Paul, what would Peter have done with it?”
Republicans, who took control of both houses last year for the first time in four decades, seemed unsure of what to do with their new-found power. Their initiatives were designed to placate their party’s conservative base rather than to reach out to moderates and independents.
These initiatives included bills that would have:
- Established new licensing requirements for abortion clinics.
- Required a physician to be present whenever an abortion pill is prescribed or swallowed.
- Expanded Minnesota’s self-defense law, allowing the use of a gun beyond the home to yards, porches, pools and tents.
All of these bills were struck down by Dayton, who has cast a total of 53 vetoes in his first two years as governor. This continues a trend of accelerated vetoes begun by Republican predecessor Tim Pawlenty, who also was confronted with a legislature controlled by the opposing party. In comparison, independent Jesse Ventura cast 33 vetoes in his four years as the state’s chief executive.
Republicans managed to circumvent the governor on the issue of voter identification, approving a proposed constitutional amendment that would require voters to show up at the polls with a photo ID. It will be on the November ballot along with an amendment approved last year that would ban same-sex marriage. The governor is not empowered to veto constitutional amendments.
‘Last in, first out’
Dayton was not above looking out for his own political base. He vetoed a bill that would have permitted school districts to lay off teachers based on performance rather than seniority.
The measure to repeal the “last in, first out” policy had support from a number of education reform groups. However, it was strongly opposed by Education Minnesota, the state teachers’ union, which historically has been one of the largest contributors to DFL political campaigns.
One of the session’s few feel-good moments came with bipartisan approval of a measure to restore or delay selected cuts to human service programs that were approved last year as part of the state’s budget-balancing efforts. The measure included $4.7 million for Emergency Medical Assistance for those receiving dialysis and cancer treatment, and $5.9 million for personal care attendants for people with disabilities.
Dayton and Legislature also were able to agree on a measure to streamline the environmental permitting process for businesses.
Othewise, political compromise was in short supply. Schier said it is not surprising that the DFL governor and Republican legislative leaders were unable to come to agreement on more issues. They were all “newbies” to their respective positions and “they fundamentally disagree about the role of government,” he said.
For their part, Republicans probably are not disappointed about the Legislature’s modest accomplishments. As strong believers in limited government, they would be happy to repeal many of the laws now on the books rather than to enact new ones.