Everything was supposed to be different in 2017.
After particularly messy endings to the Minnesota legislative session two years in a row, Republican leaders of the House and Senate promised a new way of doing things. In January, they set ambitious deadlines to craft a $46 billion state budget by the end of March or early April, giving them more than a month to work out the final details with DFL Gov. Mark Dayton before adjourning the session in May.
They met those initial deadlines, giving even the most skeptical political watchers hope that the budget process really would be less chaotic — and more transparent to the public.
But when it came time for legislative leaders to start final negotiations with the governor, progress ground to a halt. In closed-door meetings, Republicans and the DFL governor repeatedly clashed over numerous issues, showing little progress on the state’s two-year budget until 11:15 p.m. on the final night of session, when they held a press conference to say they’d reached a tentative framework of a deal.
Dayton called legislators back at 12:01 a.m. for an intended one-day special session of the Legislature, but what followed was a 75-hour marathon of closed-door negotiations, late hearings and votes, all of which happened with little to no notice for the public to get involved.
After all that, Minnesota is left with another giant mess. Republicans quietly placed a provision in a budget bill that made funding for the 1,300-employee Department of Revenue contingent on Dayton signing the tax bill. Dayton said he reluctantly signed the bill, but he also moved to defund the entire Legislature in order to reopen debate on taxes, a move that’s almost certainly headed to the courts.
“The nature of the process is at the very end, everything has to get decided, especially when you have opposite leadership in government,” Dayton said the day after the special session ended. “People don’t compromise until they absolutely have to, and they don’t absolutely have to until the very end.”
It’s a familiar story that’s spanned decades and power shifts in St. Paul —and one that once again leaves lingering questions for legislators and the public. If moving up deadlines didn’t make the process more transparent, what will do the trick? Given the entrenched interests involved and the nature of the political process in Minnesota, can anything be done at all?
A move to bump up the deadlines
Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, is in the camp that thinks there are ways to fix the process within the institution itself. Late last year, it was Nelson and a group of bipartisan senators who proposed to bump up the deadlines for lawmakers to finish their work on the budget, which would give legislators more time to read bills they are voting on and give the public a chance to testify.
This was to make up for the previous two sessions, which had ended in chaos. In 2015, Republican Speaker Kurt Daudt and DFL Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk reached a budget agreement in the final 72 hours of session, but that agreement was struck without the approval of Dayton. When it was all over, three of the budget bills met with his veto pen, requiring a one-day special session.
Again in 2016, a deal to pass a supplemental budget bill was pushed until the final hours of the session. But then, in the final minutes, disagreements over light rail funding ultimately torpedoed a transportation funding bill and a package of capital investment projects. Dayton also vetoed a package of tax cuts that year, after the final proposal included a one-word drafting error that would have cost the state $100 million over three years.
But bumping up the deadlines didn’t fix the process this year. Nelson said that’s because there was a key component missing in the plan: the governor. Republican legislators finished their work early, but Dayton pushed back on agreeing to a joint budget framework, she said, delaying the final negotiations into the session’s final hours and into a special session. She wants to see the Legislature and governor agree more than a week from the end of session on so-called joint budget targets — a single number to fund each area of state government.
The ‘Holy Grail’ of transparency
Nelson doesn’t think the problem is a partisan one: Deadlines get pushed off no matter who’s in control of government. “In Minnesota, we often have divided government, so it’s important to get these three-way budget targets out early,” she said. “I just see a broken process. It’s not just one party or another.”
Alex Howard, deputy director of the Sunlight Foundation in Washington, D.C., said technology has been the No. 1 factor contributing to more open and transparent government in the last decade. Between social media, regularly updated legislative websites and streaming services, the public has more opportunities than ever before to hear about what’s happening in Washington or at statehouses across the country in real time. But it’s still hard for a citizen to follow wonky budget debates, or to track complex budget bills being changed with little or no explanation.
That’s what happened in the state government budget bill this year, where Republicans inserted the clause that made funding for the Department of Revenue contingent on the governor signing the tax cut bill. After the fact, most rank-and-file legislators admitted they didn’t even know the provision was in the bill.
If members of the Legislature didn’t even know, how was the public supposed to?
Howard said for many, the “Holy Grail” of transparency is to create a “living budget document,” one that cleanly tracks spending on different areas and shows when changes or additions are made in real time.
“It could be something as simple as a spreadsheet or something as complex as a living budget document,” Howard said. “We have a representative democracy and it’s appropriate to see how we are being represented. Obviously we have a recourse in the ballot box, but the great promise of technology advancements is that citizenship isn’t something you just exercise on Election Day; you can exercise it every day.”
Taking it to the courts?
Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, thinks the bigger problem is the practice of packing hundreds of provisions, from budget changes to policy measures, into a single budget document known as an omnibus bill. Passing giant omnibus bills in the final hours of session barely gives legislators enough time to read them, he said, let alone members of the public.
Marty, who has served in St. Paul for more than 30 years, said the practice has gotten worse over time, with an increase in legislating through omnibus bills during recent sessions.
“At this rate, by the time we get to 2020 we will have all of the 2020 legislation in one single bill, and there will be one vote, and it will be are you for this or against it,” Marty said.
It’s also potentially a violation of the Constitution, which includes a provision known as the “single subject clause.” The clause says that no bill can address more than one subject, which must be expressed in its title. Marty is considering taking the issue to court, arguing the increase in giant omnibus bills violates the intentions of the Constitution.
“The Legislature, you can’t fix it,” Marty said. “Those of us who feel it’s a bad process, we don’t have any real recourse at the Capitol. If the courts say the Legislature’s bills have to deal with a single subject, the Legislature will change its practices overnight, and I don’t think it will [change] otherwise.”
Does the public care?
Rep. Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, pushed several proposals this year to make the Legislature more transparent. One would have studied how to make legislators subject to the Minnesota Data Practices Act — the state’s version of the Freedom of Information Act — and open meeting laws.
That would make their correspondence subject to disclosure to the public, and it would mean those closed-door meetings at the end of session would become a violation of the law. The proposal didn’t pass, but it could come up soon before a legislative committee on data practices and privacy.
Yet Thissen ultimately believes that the biggest motivator for legislators to be more transparent would be pressure from the public. In the 1972 election, former Democratic House Minority Leader Martin Sabo ran a campaign based on making the Legislature more open to the public. The DFL took back the majority in that election, and Sabo went to work the next year opening up meetings to the public and making public records more accessible.
“It is possible to rally people around this,” Thissen said. “At the end of the day, the Legislature and the administration can keep getting away with this until the public says we’ve had enough.”