It had been a few years — well, a few decades — since my shy friend had been a regular at the State Capitol. Maybe that’s why he was a mite tentative as he offered me his prognostication about how one of the 2019 Legislature’s big debates would be resolved.
“With the governor at a gas tax increase of 20 cents and the Republicans at zero, they’ll wind up at a nickel or a dime, right?” he asked.
I could only shake my head in the negative. It would have been unkind to add, “You’re from the 20th century, aren’t you?”
End-of-session dealmaking — like so many things — isn’t what it used to be.
Split-the-difference legislative compromises that were once as predictable as daffodils in May are now very hard to achieve. The one my friend foretold could still come to pass, but last week’s breakdown in talks suggests it will be a long time coming if it does.
If this crew of state leaders ultimately comes together, they will be bucking a trend of the last two decades at Minnesota’s statehouse and at our nation’s Capitol as well.
Politics was long seen as a means to an end, the end being effective governance. Those priorities were captured in the mantra of Roger Moe, Senate majority leader from 1981 through 2002, that the reporters who covered him often heard: “Good policy is good politics.”
Today, politics is increasingly deemed an end in itself. During campaigns, any mean or misleading thing goes if it might yield an advantage at the polls, regardless of the collateral damage it does to the ability to govern. During legislative sessions, setting one’s party in good stead for the next election takes precedent over reaching half-a-loaf solutions in the here and now.
Why meet in the middle on the gas tax, when doing nothing allows DFLers to tar Republicans as pothole-loving cheapskates and Republicans to wrap an big tax increase proposal around DFL necks?
Those dispiriting observations are not mine alone. I heard as much when I bought a happy-retirement cup of coffee for attorney/lobbyist Tim Flaherty, who is stepping down from the helm of the St. Paul law firm Flaherty & Hood.
Flaherty has logged even more sessions than I have, starting with his stint as an intern in House Research in 1971, the Minnesota Miracle session. One might say his career embodies the One Minnesota theme. Since the early 1980s, he’s come to the Capitol representing cities, first Minneapolis, then the Coalition of Outstate Cities, then the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities, which he helped build into a potent force with a lobbying approach driven by data, not favors.
The stakes in the 2019 end-of-session dance go beyond whether the gas tax will increase or the health care provider tax continue, Flaherty opined. Minnesota’s tradition of functional state government is also on the line.
“A lot of the question this year is, are we going to reverse the no-compromise trend and go in a different direction?” he said. “Winner-take-all has become the political game. If you can’t win, block the other guy. They don’t think they’ll pay any price for obstruction. That has to change.”
Why? Minnesota has a purple propensity in politics that isn’t likely to change — particularly if redistricting continues to fall into the hands of judges, not elected officials. It should be no surprise that Minnesota has the only legislature in the nation this year with split party control. Divided state government has been the rule in this state for all but two years (2013-14) since 1991.
With a few notable exceptions, these have not been glory years — or glory decades — in state policymaking. They’ve been the “just say no” years, in which chronic problems have been allowed to fester.
“We’ve got to change that culture,” Flaherty said. “If one side says no and the other side just gives in, the just-say-no mentality will keep coming back.”
The onus to prevent that result is primarily on DFL Gov. Tim Walz, Flaherty argued. How he ends this, his first session as governor, will set a pattern for the years that remain in his tenure. “If the Republicans win by saying no this time, it will be ‘no’ on many things for the rest of his term,” Flaherty predicted.
That will apply particularly to tax increases for transportation’s sake, he added. If Republicans prevail, any transportation improvements in the foreseeable future will come at the expense of education, he said, “when we should be funding both.”
“Walz has to make clear that either there will be a fair compromise, or they will be there for a long time,” he said.
How long? As I mentioned, Flaherty’s first session was 1971 — when the special session ended on Oct. 30.
But with more than a week remaining before the regular session reaches its May 20 expiration date, I say it’s too early to talk about special sessions. And talk of a shutdown should be verboten. Both sides should see that a government shutdown in a time of surplus (even the ephemeral $1 billion one in the latest state fiscal forecast) is politically toxic. A reminder: in the elections after the shutdowns in 2005 and 2011, control of one or both of the Legislature’s chambers flipped to the opposite party.
Rather, I’d rather invite Minnesotans who like the sound of the split-the-difference gas tax outcome described by my too-shy-to-be-named friend to speak up. Contact your legislators and tell them that the 20th century’s meet-in-the-middle way to settle legislative disputes isn’t old-fashioned or obsolete. And that 21st-century Minnesotans still think the best political advantage derives from the enactment of good policy.
Lori Sturdevant is a retired Star Tribune editorial writer and an occasional columnist. She is at email@example.com.