It’s been a quiet week in St. Paul, which is not my hometown.
The fireworks that were promised at the beginning of the Legislative session early this year mostly did not come to pass. By means of several sleepless nights working on bills, legislators have likely averted a government shutdown. Barring some massive reversal by Gov. Dayton, the bills that the Republican-controlled House and Senate passed will be signed, and the state will have a budget for the next two years.
But let’s not bust out the champagne just yet. In terms of the civility and functionality of Minnesota’s government, the 2017 session gave us reasons to be cynical along with reasons for optimism.
I could start out with the fact the bonding bill in the Senate was almost scotched because of a dispute between Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk and House Majority Leader Kurt Daudt over whether a trail would be paved or unpaved. An excerpt from MinnPost reporter Briana Bierschbach’s summary of the session:
Late Friday night, Senate Democrats protested language they said Daudt added to the bill at the last minute to block the paving of a trail in Bloomington. In a statement, Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk said the trail is “adjacent to land of a number of wealthy Minnesotans.” Democrats refused to vote for the bill if the DFL-sponsored provision wasn’t included, and for many, it brought back memories of last session, when a similarly-sized bonding bill fell apart in the final moments of the session over the addition of a single light rail provision. But after a frantic hour of negotiations, Daudt agreed to include the paving language, and the bonding bill passed with GOP and DFL support in both chambers.
Here’s another excerpt from Forum News Service’s Don Davis (note that “public works bill” and “bonding bill” can be used interchangeably):
Bakk said he feared Daudt would kill the public works bill, to be funded by the state selling bonds, if the measure required the path to be paved.
“I am extremely disappointed that Speaker Daudt will not remove problematic language from the bonding bill,” Bakk said. “I told him tonight that the provision had to come out of the bonding bill in order to earn enough DFL votes to pass the Senate.”
Bonding bills need supermajority votes, so Republicans who control the Legislature cannot pass them on their own.
The dispute, which mostly played out in closed-door meetings, held up work on the bonding bill and the only other major bill left for lawmakers, one funding health and human services programs such as health care for the poor.
This is what happens when the real power in the Legislature is centralized on half a dozen people, i.e., the House and Senate leadership.
With the power focused on just a handful of people, it’s easy for their individual personalities and ambitions to override the greater goals of the Legislature as a whole, and by extension, the people of Minnesota. Why don’t the rank and file legislators buck their leaders more frequently when those leaders do stupid or selfish things? We know it can be done, it’s even been done with Bakk before.
Legislative leaders need to follow the example of new Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, often the voice of reason and moderation during the session negotiations. For the most part, I credit him with the tone of the session being as amenable as it was.
The leadership can also learn from Gov. Mark Dayton, who has nothing but his ideals to tie him down, since he’s not running for re-election. Contrast Dayton and Gazelka’s leadership with that of Daudt, who is brazenly flirting with his own gubernatorial run, or Bakk, who is so focused on his own agenda he’s hung his own Senate caucus out to dry.
We’ve made good progress this session with legislators putting aside their own beefs and wish lists to concentrate on the good of the state. Let’s continue down that path in the off-season, and next spring, when the big show starts again in the 2018 session.
Happy trails, everyone.