There are only a few occasions when all 201 members of the Minnesota Legislature — the 67 state senators and 134 members of the House of Representatives — meet together: One is to hear the governor’s State of the State address; the other is when they vote jointly to elect members to the University of Minnesota Board of Regents.
This year, there’s a third time. On Wednesday, all members of the House and Senate are meeting at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs for an all-day gathering called the “One Minnesota Legislative Policy Conference.” Yet there is one crucial difference between the first two get-togethers and Wednesday’s meeting. The former are open to the public and the media; the “One Minnesota” conference is not.
Normally, the only closed meetings of the Legislature are the party caucuses: the discussion and strategy sessions reserved to members of each party in each chamber. But committee meetings and floor sessions are all required to be open.
So why is the “One Minnesota” different?
The first reason given by legislative leaders Tuesday for making the meeting closed-door was tradition, when not deferring about who was responsible for the decision.
“That’s the first time I’ve ever been asked that,” said Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, when asked about why the public and members of the media weren’t allowed. “I’ve never thought about why you’re not welcome.”
“That is a really good question,” said House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park. “I kinda wish you would be able to be there because it is a good day to get back to the basics.”
She said the program includes talks about the budget and a demography refresher. But Hortman said the decision to keep private a gathering of every state lawmaker was “not my call to make.”
So whose call is it?
Hortman said it is put on by the University of Minnesota and the legislative caucuses, saying she has been a “spokesperson” to advocate bringing news media into the room but that “I don’t get a super vote.”
Although the meeting is located at the University of Minnesota, professor Lawrence Jacobs, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the Humphrey School and the school’s Department of Political Science, said via a spokesperson that the school has nothing to do with the program — or the ground rules.
“One Minnesota is entirely directed by the Legislature, with the space privately contracted,” Jacobs said. “The Humphrey School and university have no influence on the agenda or any events during the day. It is a private event.”
The leaders of the minority caucuses of the Legislature also said they didn’t know why the conference is closed. Or even that it was closed.
“I actually don’t have a concrete answer for that,” said Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent, DFL-Woodbury. “I can speculate that it’s an opportunity for us to have some conversations and learn some things in a forum. It’s a lot of information sharing. It’s nothing spectacular. We don’t come up with policies as a result of it. It’s not like we’re making decisions. We’re coming together to learn a few things, to hear each other and create some of that unity.”
“I guess I didn’t realize it even was closed, but I guess I don’t know why it is,” said House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown.
What’s on the agenda for the closed-door session? A briefing by the state economist and demographer on “Minnesota’s economic and demographic realities”; a briefing by House and Senate staff on redistricting; a tutorial on “negotiation skills and tools” and workshops on “end-of-session redesign.” The gathering is being funded by grants from the Blandin Foundation and the McKnight Foundation.
Even if they didn’t take responsibility for closing the meeting to the public, each of the leaders defended the setup with some variation of the claim that it allows members of the Legislature to be more open with one another.
“I pretty much say the same thing everywhere. I don’t really change my message much,” said Gazelka. “But other people, they’re maybe not as open about what they think about things. But as I think about it, it would simply be that this is where you could actually be vulnerable and actually try to talk about can we do the process better.”
Said Kent: “It’s a time for legislators of both parties, from both bodies, to come together. We don’t have many of those opportunities. It is an opportunity for us to create some of that unity that I know Minnesotans want us to exhibit on a more regular basis.”
“It is members learning together, and that is us at our best,” said Hortman. “We think there is value in Democrats and Republicans learning together and not just sparing on our solutions, but becoming more well-rounded on the issues and the problems facing Minnesota.”
“It’s a good opportunity for us to go and talk with each other,” said Daudt. “We’re going to talk about how do we improve the process and make sure things like last session don’t happen again.”
One of the criticisms of the 2019 legislative session was about the level of secrecy during end-of-session negotiations. Gov. Tim Walz, Hortman and Gazelka did much of the budget negotiations alone and in private. They also functioned as a review panel of sorts, making final decisions on any disputes that could not be hammered out by committee chairs. The leadership panel and the committee chairs negotiations were done in private, as well.
At a pre-session forum last week involving the four top legislative leaders and Walz, Hortman was asked about the lack of openness with the end-of-session deal-making. She thinks the process was better than during previous sessions under GOP leadership, but added, “We’re still sausage makers working in a sausage factory, and there’s definitely more room for improvement.”
But House Deputy Minority Leader Anne Neu objected to Hortman making any claims of improvement.
“The reality is it was not an open and transparent process,” the North Branch Republican said. Even most of the Legislature was locked out, she said.
And so, on the second day of the current session, legislators are going to talk about end-of-session dynamics, including transparency, in closed sessions.
“I think everyone can agree the process hasn’t worked very well for a number of decades,” Gazelka said. “It’s an opportunity where both sides can get together, hopefully in a neutral setting. We’re going to talk about how do we make the process work better, which I think is really, really important.”
Tuesday, Gazelka said one highlight of the conference is a tutorial on effective negotiations by an expert from the National Council of State Legislatures, “so chairs and (bill) authors of bills can actually talk about doing that better.”
Kent, who recently won a leadership challenge to longtime DFL Senate leader Tom Bakk, said the end of last session was a little difficult and not transparent, “and if we can come up with some solutions to help with that, I think it would be a healthy thing to do.”
According to the Minnesota Legislative Research Library, the One Minnesota Conference has been held annually since 2007, with the single exception of 2018. It appears to have grown out of the Minnesota Horizons conference that was held eight times between 1975 and 2003 at varying locations in the Twin Cities.
But Horizons was different from the One Minnesota conference in one way: It was broadcast on public radio and videotaped for rebroadcast on public television stations.