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In a divided Legislature, the push to make issues ‘bipartisan’ has become increasingly popular

The most prominent examples of the bipartisan pitch has involved presenting otherwise liberal issues by coalitions that ostensibly appeal to both parties.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
The most prominent examples of the bipartisan pitch has involved presenting otherwise liberal issues by coalitions that ostensibly appeal to both parties.

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.

Keep MN Moving
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Early in session, St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce President B Kyle, center, announcing the creation of a new coalition of business groups to push for increased funding for transit. With her are Jonathan Weinhagen, president of the Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce, and Will Schroeer, executive director of East Metro Strong.
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.”

Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 05/13/2019 - 12:41 pm.

    The Chamber of Commerce needs to go away. Just. Go. Away.

    Stop endorsing Republicans and then asking them for transit and road improvements. That is the definition of insanity.

    And Mel Carter needs to tell them that before he does another press appearance with them.

    • Submitted by Don Arnosti on 05/14/2019 - 04:26 am.

      The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce receives large donations from the Koch Brothers network. Their policies are bought and paid for by this radical group of selfish billionaires.

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 05/13/2019 - 01:25 pm.

    “That is something that is very, very important to us, that we are fiscally responsible with the resources that Minnesota gives us.” Mr. Gazelka’s sense of humor is uproarious, don’t you think?

    Fiscal responsibility and “Republican” are associated in the public mind only through massive use of propaganda and half-truth. It would be worth checking to see how many Republican legislators have supported bringing broadband and/or high-speed internet to out-state Minnesota. There’s been rhetoric to that effect for the past couple of election cycles, but I’m curious. How many Republican legislators have actually voted in favor of bills that would actually do it?

    • Submitted by David Lundeen on 05/13/2019 - 01:59 pm.

      Mr. Gazelka, in both those comments, and in his actions revealed over the weekend is an embarrassment to the state of Minnesota. It’s repulsive that our legislative agenda is in the hands of this divisive, and anti-glbt leader.

  3. Submitted by Carl Brookins on 05/13/2019 - 05:31 pm.

    Bipartisanship is a dogwhistle, a canard. It is used by both divided sides to signal no compromise. With the poison leaking down from Washington, we are confronted by legislators who couldn’t care less about the health of the nation or solving real problems. Government leaders lie cheat and steal and nobody says one meaningful word of protest. The atmosphere is disgusting and we face the real possibility of martial law.

  4. Submitted by Edward Blaise on 05/13/2019 - 09:41 pm.

    ““We’ve never voted for a tax increase since 2011,” said Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka last week.”

    And we also have not elected a single Republican to state wide office since 2011.

    Cause and effect: irresponsible leadership >>> no electoral winners.

  5. Submitted by Barry Peterson on 05/13/2019 - 11:15 pm.

    Something of concern to me over many of our election cycles is the constant barrage of words and phrases, and of tweets which takes on, in the manner of both political activists and actors — and too many television and radio personalities, both obsequious, and outrageously derogatory and damning personas.

    I have been involved with our State’s DFL Party for about forty-years. I have been involved with old Senate District 59, and now Senate District 60’s DFL Board of Directors for going on twenty-years.

    I have also made friends with those who consider themselves Republicans. During my time in college, and afterward, some of my friends and their families in this nation, and in foreign nations, were either active or supportive of political parties which ranged from Communism to Neo-Facism during both The Cold War and the attempt of Communists to take over businesses in South America.

    My current concern is of the pre-occupation of those who believe themselves to speak for others and themselves as Democrats, who speak with great disdain and blind anger and rage against “millionaires and billionaires” who they believe, as an entire and distinct class, are corrupt and hateful of “working people.”

    As well, my concern for those who have a pre-occupation, as Republicans, that “no new taxes” is the intelligent and only attitude toward statesmanship and keeping “responsible control” over “government spending.”

    Without intending to radically speak against those speaking on their behalf, and the often naive and reckless, and unintelligent members of their base, I must say that I am greatly disappointed by the extreme actors in both ‘parties.’

    One of the reasons that our nation’s founders and their families spoke out against taxation was not because it was “bad,” but because the British Crown, and its taxation, did little to aid colonial communities of the first recognized colonies found along the eastern seaboard and those found more inland.

    Please, it is important to have an understanding of our nation’s beginnings; and it is important to recognize, as the German Empire’s first chancellor did by understanding both the need for strong leaders who were considered the ‘elite’ of the region, as well as the important needs of those with lesser understood wealth and needs. Otto von Bismarck took a huge leap into the effective, considerate, and shrewd management of his German society by authorizing ‘social welfare’ to include schools and medical care for those with far less active capital than what was true among those whom he was considered a peer.

    With his keen understanding of both economic and political political needs and desires, he did develop institutions which spurred along the Industrial Revolution in his kaiser’s realm.

    Please review the following article from Smithsonian Magazine:

    I find it atrocious that the demagogues in our community resort to such negative rhetoric which divides our state and nation, and which lends to forms of tension and anxiety that begets hatred toward both sides by all sides.

    With this, and nearing the end of the State of Minnesota legislative season, I expect more from all sides.

    The witless pretensions, presumptions and servile loyalties to any of our State or Nation’s political parties and their actors belie the rich and attractive notions of our nation’s founders from which many of us still hold as a standard of conscience as seen in the great advances of both the Age of Enlightenment and the advances our families and our communities enjoyed during both the Industrial Age and leading, more recently, to advances in technology which save lives and provide greater comfort to most citizens and other denizens of our State and Nation.

  6. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 05/14/2019 - 12:04 pm.

    The way it works is that any legislator serious about a piece of legislation has to find a legislator of the other political party in the other house to sign on to the bill. It’s a pretty mundane practice lacking in overarching philosophical theory, but that’s the only way to get things done in a divided legislature. One wonders if that’s what the voters had in mind.

  7. Submitted by Jon Person on 05/15/2019 - 12:13 am.

    When the economy is good….we need more taxes. When the economy is bad…we need more taxes. Hogwash. Over and over I here how terrible it will be if we don’t get more money for this program or that program. Unemployment is at an all time low. Which means income tax revenue should be high. Also, with everyone working and spending that money there should be high sales tax revenue as well. For once can we say enough tax is enough. I have a personal monthly/yearly budget. If i’m projecting i might be a little short I look for ways to save money. I cut back my spending. Maybe we should try that instead of constants adding another program on top of another program.

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