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The art and science of forcing ‘bad votes’ at the Minnesota Legislature

A look at how some votes at the Legislature are meant not to legislate but to campaign — to prepare for the upcoming election by providing fodder for the mailers and social media ads that will be delivered to voters in battleground districts. 

Minority Leader Kurt Daudt: “There is a bill that was introduced in today’s introductions that I think can’t wait. We need to take it up right now.”
Minority Leader Kurt Daudt: “There is a bill that was introduced in today’s introductions that I think can’t wait. We need to take it up right now.”
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Call this one How A Bill Doesn’t Become A Law (but becomes a campaign mailer instead).

It’s about how motions are made and bills are voted on with no intention of them passing. It’s how minority parties, which are usually excluded from decision making, can use the rules and procedures to embarrass the majority.

And it’s how yes or no votes are meant not to legislate but to campaign — to prepare for the upcoming election by providing fodder for the mailers and social media ads that deliver messages to voters.

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A battleground tactic

Tuesday, during the first reading of bills in the Minnesota House, Minority Leader Kurt Daudt made a motion that halted what is usually a ministerial function. Normally bills are “read” and then assigned to committees for hearings. Instead, Daudt moved to have one bill, House File 4060, brought to the floor for immediate consideration.

“There is a bill that was introduced in today’s introductions that I think can’t wait,” Daudt, R-Crown, told the House. “We need to take it up right now.”

That bill would declare a state gas-tax holiday between Memorial Day and Labor Day. That 28-cent-per gallon tax break would save Minnesota drivers roughly $200 million. The money would be replaced in the fund that pays to maintain roads and bridges with cash from the state’s $9.25 billion surplus.

The proposal was introduced by six DFL members in battleground districts, seats that are expected to be contested and help determine majority control of the House next year. Several are from suburban districts that can swing from GOP to DFL depending on the year, while one is from the Iron Range, where Democrats have been losing ground in recent years, and another is from St. Cloud, which has also gone back and forth.

The idea of suspending gas taxes has also garnered support among congressional Democrats for similar reasons: as a way to combat inflation in general and higher gasoline prices specifically in the face of election headwinds for the party, which historically loses seats in a president’s first midterm. Gov. Tim Walz also endorsed a federal moratorium Tuesday and said he was open to a summertime suspension of the state gas tax.

But the concept has drawn criticism from within the DFL, with some in the caucus arguing that it would encourage driving, which contributes to release of greenhouse gasses. It is unlikely that if the bill came to the House floor for final passage it could pass without GOP votes.

Daudt himself once endorsed the concept of the moratorium, but he now says he opposes it. So why was he seemingly speaking in favor of it, asking that it be passed right away? Because the vote on his motion — despite it being technically a procedural vote on whether a bill would be sent to committee as is routine — will be portrayed as a vote against a gas-tax hike. 

“I don’t know about you but I have been noticing, as a result of failed policies of Democrats here and at the national level, the rising increase in gas prices,” Daudt said, mentioning that when he filled up his snowmobile with premium gasoline over the weekend, he paid $4.49 per gallon.

“Insane,” Daudt said. “The last time we had prices this high, obviously, was when President Obama was in office.” 

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The House GOP leader also took the opportunity to bring up votes in 2019 on Gov. Walz’s then-plan to raise the state gas tax by 20 cents in 5-cent increments. Many of the sponsors of the tax holiday had voted for that, he said.

“When they think voters aren’t looking, they vote to take more money out of your pocket and make gas more expensive,” Daudt said. “In an election year when they hope you are paying attention, they want to fool you with a temporary gas-tax reduction.”

Welcome to the show

The DFL majority could easily block the motion, so both sides knew this was an exercise. And both sides treated it as theater. While the DFL was the target this time, the party’s lawmakers have in the past used similar maneuvers — and might do so again. No reason, then, to get too upset.

“Premium fuel, huh?” joked House Speaker Melissa Hortman when Daudt finished and before she recognized House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler. The Golden Valley DFLer urged his members to vote no on the Daudt motion, quoting the minority leader calling the proposed moratorium “desperate and temporary “ and a “gimmick” when it was introduced. Instead, Winkler said, Daudt could help family budgets by supporting DFL proposals on paid family leave, paid safe and sick time, affordable child care and affordable housing.

“But let’s give them one hearing first,” Winkler said. 

Perhaps following the adage: “If you have the votes, you vote; if you don’t, you talk,” majority House DFLers didn’t say much more, leaving GOP members to do most of the speaking.

House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler urged his members to vote no on the Daudt motion, quoting the minority leader calling the proposed moratorium “desperate and temporary “ and a “gimmick” when it was introduced.
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House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler urged his members to vote no on the Daudt motion, quoting the minority leader calling the proposed moratorium “desperate and temporary “ and a “gimmick” when it was introduced.
The theater of the motion — and the real reason for it — was made clear by an exchange between GOP Rep. Pat Garofalo of Farmington and Winkler. After asking Winkler to yield for a question, Garofalo asked: “What happened to make these DFL members realize they were so wrong” to have voted for gas-tax hikes in the past but to now support a moratorium?

“Rep. Garofalo, your question is bringing personalities and motives into the debate and you’re not even doing a very good job of it.”

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Garofalo responded, to laughter on both sides of the political aisle, “Yeah, so what? Whatever. I don’t like your personality either.”

A vote that will live on

Daudt’s relationship with the bill is somewhat fraught since he was in favor of the concept before he was against it. In December, when the state learned it’s surplus would be $7.75 billion, he endorsed giving some money back to taxpayers.

“I think we should call for a moratorium on energy taxes, which would include a moratorium on gas taxes,” Daudt said then. 

But two weeks ago, Daudt criticized the six DFLers when they unveiled their plan. Then Monday, he seemed to be supportive again when he tried to pull their bill directly to the floor.

State Rep. Pat Garofalo: “I don’t like your personality either.”
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State Rep. Pat Garofalo: “I don’t like your personality either.”
But consistency isn’t in order at times like Monday, when the purpose was to make a political point and, more importantly, entice the DFL to take a “bad vote.”

Because the motion needed 90 votes to pass, the DFL majority could have allowed some vulnerable members to vote yes. But when the roll was taken, only one did: Rep. Dave Lislegard, DFL-Aurora. 

The motion failed and the bill was sent to committee, where it is likely to remain. The vote, however, will live on — in mailboxes and inboxes throughout the state’s battleground districts.