A feature that’s unique to Minnesota among all states this year — a bicameral legislature with one chamber controlled by one party and the other chamber controlled by the other — has resulted in a very common strategy during the 2019 session: In order to break through that division, activists have been trying very hard to frame issues as bipartisan — whether they are or not.
Want to push increased transportation taxes to pay for road projects and transit? Bring in some chambers of commerce and corporate leaders to make an appeal to Republicans’ desire to boost the economy.
Wage theft? Have skilled trade unionists who have a reputation for spreading campaign endorsements and donations to both parties deliver the message to the GOP.
Affordable housing? Present it not just as a social justice issue but as a problem for manufacturers in cities and towns facing labor shortages. “Right now in rural Minnesota there are three things that are holding us back. It’s job workforce, it’s daycares and housing,” Sen. Mark Johnson, R-East Grand Forks, said early in the session. “We’ve got the jobs. We’ve got lots of jobs. We’ve got Marvin, we’ve got DigiKey, we’ve got Arctic Cat. We’ve got all these great companies that are hiring. But how do we get people up if we can’t find them housing?”
Even the push to make driver’s licenses available to undocumented immigrants featured — along with police department brass and agriculture industry advocates — a dairy farmer whose workers need access to cars to get to work.
A smart strategy. In theory.
The most prominent examples of the bipartisan pitch has involved presenting otherwise liberal issues by coalitions that ostensibly appeal to both parties.
Will Schroeer, executive director of East Metro Strong, a coalition of East Metro businesses and local governments, told the House-Senate transportation budget conference committee last week that a recent study suggests that investing in Twin Cities transit — an idea with broad support among DFLers — will produce a three-to-one benefit to the economy.
The benefits would flow not just to transit users but would also help non-users through decreased congestion, faster travel times and reduced pollution, the study asserted. “We urge you to respond to this business case and fund the transit needs that you’ve heard about here today across Minnesota,” Schroeer said.
Also last week, Jason Flohrs, the Minnesota state director for the conservative Americans for Prosperity, joined activists — including county attorneys from both parties — to urge passage of a five-year cap on most post-prison probation periods.
He compared it to the First Step Act, a federal law recently passed by Congress that attempts to ease transition for federal inmates into society through training and education. “It focused on the moral and fiscal reasons to do right by people who have served or are doing their time and to make sure they have a true pathway for a second chance,” he said.
The state bill moves in the same direction by removing barriers to released felons to get back into society. “On this issue, it’s one of the ones that is a true bipartisan issue,” he said, saying that if it were to get to the floor of the state Senate, “it will be supported by a broad majority of conservatives.”
Republicans aren’t immune from trying the bipartisan approach. When Sen. Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes, brought out a new tax credit for donations to private school scholarship funds for low-income students, he featured a black principal from a North Minneapolis Catholic school where students of color make up most of the student body.
Finding ways to pitch issues to both parties — to conservatives and liberals both — is a good strategy on paper. Anything that reaches the desk of Gov. Tim Walz will need to win a majority in the DFL House and GOP Senate. And in theory, bills can pass with just a few members of the majority caucus joining all of those in the minority.
But in practice, caucus discipline remains strict, and more powerful forces are making the bespoke bipartisanship just another nice try. The Senate GOP is united around a no-new-taxes platform that makes gas and transit taxes impossible, and even items with Republican support that cost money, such as a new tax credit for contributions to affordable housing projects, have been set aside.
There are a handful of bills and issues that have moved and are truly bipartisan: opioids; pharmacy and drug price regulation; wage theft; emergency insulin; rural broadband expansion; marital rape exception; fixing the MNLARS mess; making driving and holding a cell phone illegal.
But little else is gaining traction. It has reached the point that when someone says “this shouldn’t be a partisan issue,” it’s usually because it has become one — and that it’s in trouble.
Trying to break through no-new-taxes pledge
Nowhere is the strategy more obvious than with transportation. Early in session, the Minneapolis and St. Paul chambers of commerce supported both gas tax hikes and additional money for transit. As the Minneapolis chamber and East Metro Strong were releasing their study detailing the return on investment the taxes would bring, Ecolab CEO Doug Baker appeared with St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter to push for funding for the $50 million-plus B-Line bus rapid transit line that would connect St. Paul and Minneapolis via Lake Street and Marshall Avenue.
Even the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce — which has opposed the Walz Administration’s tax-hike proposals, including a higher gas tax — sent a letter to the Senate asking for it to consider increased funding for Twin Cities transit systems.
But the calls for higher taxes have been rebuffed by Republicans who control the state Senate. They instead favor the continuation of a funding method crafted in 2017 that dedicates half of the sales tax on auto parts to roads and bridges. The GOP has also favored some additional borrowing to pay for road projects but has no proposal this year for local-level transit revenue increases. The caucus will also not produce a bonding bill until next year that might have some money for projects, such as additional bus rapid transit lines.
“We’ve never voted for a tax increase since 2011,” said Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka last week. “That is something that is very, very important to us, that we are fiscally responsible with the resources that Minnesota gives us.”
General taxes, gas taxes, the provider tax, fees? “We put that all into one big pot,” he said. “That’s important to us.”
House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, is experiencing his own frustration trying to break through the Senate GOP strategy of no-new-revenue. He said Thursday that compromise is needed, but that no such thing is possible unless the GOP moves on off of its position as the no-new-taxes party.
“If they can’t compromise, they’re the government-shutdown party,” Winkler said, raising the specter of a shutdown if a budget deal can’t be reached by July 1.
Still, he said the approach by advocates is expected and obvious — if not yet successful. “People are practical,” Winkler said. “They want to solve these problems and they’re looking at any kind of argument they can make that might somehow appeal to Republicans.”