The long, twisted tale of the 2015-16 Legislature apparently has come to a sorry but not unexpected end. Legislative leaders and Gov. Mark Dayton announced Thursday that they had reached no deal on Southwest light rail and, without it, there will be no special session to complete the year’s lawmaking work.
That means no tax relief, no building projects (bonding) bill, no new transportation funding — and no reason for confidence in the ability of this cast of lawmaking characters to produce a different result next year if they hold their seats in this fall’s election.
If it stands, this result will rank the 2015-16 Legislature among the least productive in the modern era. Major bonding and tax bills have failed before, and transportation bills are notoriously difficult to pass. But not in recent memory have two years elapsed with only minor bills in all three of those categories becoming law.
It’s a distressing result for a state that habitually looks to state government to solve shared problems and set the table for future prosperity. That habit is eroding — and that’s not a change Minnesotans should welcome. Over time, a weaker state government is bound to lead to more local control over public services, which will mean more disparities between rich and poor and a heavier tax burden on low- and middle-income earners, who pay a disproportionate share of local sales and property taxes.
The proximate cause of the breakdown in special session talks is the same one that tripped up the bonding/transportation bill on May 22. The DFL governor and Senate majority insist that some provision for Southwest light rail be on a special-session agenda. The House Republican majority insists that no green light for the project be provided.
Each side accuses the other of playing politics — and on that score, both are right. But Republican resistance to Metro Transit’s rail projects is shortsighted. The success of the existing Blue and Green Lines in both moving people and spurring development augurs their extensions — the Green Line to Eden Prairie (Southwest) and the Blue Line to Brooklyn Park (Bottineau), Both can meet rigorous federal funding criteria, making available federal money that will flow to other parts of the country if these lines are not built. Both would be an economic plus for the region.
House Republicans were not asked to dedicate state tax dollars to Southwest. Rather, the project’s proponents sought either a higher metro-only sales tax for transit, a higher debt ceiling for Hennepin County to borrow for the project or a boost in Metro Transit operating funds so that it could do the borrowing. Those approaches should have been acceptable to a party that has long claimed a preference for local control.
But there’s more to this Legislature’s failure than a fight over a rail line. Procedural missteps are part of the story. The tax bill was vetoed because it contained a $100 million error that might have been corrected, had legislators not pushed their deadline too hard. An opportunity to negotiate a multiyear transportation funding package during the 2015-16 interim was not seized. A bonding bill that carried projects with broad bipartisan support moved too late and, in the Senate, became a vehicle for a Southwest rail provision the House would not accept.
Something more fundamental is also to blame. Too many legislators are unwilling to strike the kind of bipartisan compromises that are required when voters send divided government to St. Paul. They appear more concerned about disappointing their partisan bases than about making state government work — and voters reinforce that thinking by failing to hold legislators to account for gridlock.
If Thursday’s words are the last about a special session, legislative candidates hoping to run against a “do-nothing” 2016 Legislature have their wish. Awareness of that fact should inspire one last stab at compromise. One obvious possibility: Set a special-session agenda containing only mutually agreeable bonding and tax relief provisions, leaving the touchy transportation issue aside.
Action on those bills alone would be less than Minnesotans deserve from these lawmakers. But it would take some of the sting of failure out of the record they’ve produced to date.