After five months of a regular legislative session, Minnesota lawmakers spent Friday in what was supposed to be a one-day special session, called by Gov. Tim Walz to finish their uncompleted work — passage of a two-year, $48 billion budget.
You might be forgiven for thinking that would lend a certain urgency to the proceedings. Instead, the morning gave way to more closed-door meetings and may yet stretch into the weekend. It’s easy to overstate the disputes, secrecy and power plays that dominate end-of-session drama, and easier still to forget that such elements are present in every session. A few things, however, distinguish this session — and not in a good way.
Budgets have been written by leaders before, but this time the vast majority was shaped after adjournment. It happened in unofficial working groups, where there was little public notice and no notes of proceedings, or through Walz, DFL House Speaker Melissa Hortman and Republican Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka. The trio did line-by-line sorts on some bills and resolved disputes among warring committee chairs on others — behind closed doors and out of session. That avoided a potential shutdown, but it should not become a precedent.
Walz told an editorial writer that he was thankful for the hard-nosed, pragmatic talks that took place. However, he acknowledged they should have happened in conference committees, before the public.
He’s right. The missing ingredient for years now has been a willingness to acknowledge that each side must win a little and lose a little, because that’s the only way democracy works. Instead, Senate conference committee chairs often declined to meet when it was their turn. That left far too many details that forced the session into overtime. Complaints among rank-and-file lawmakers, lobbyists, the media and interest groups abounded, and with good reason. Should this continue, there is the risk that public meetings are mere theater, with all the real action in private.
It’s clear that even with all the other issues Minnesota faces, this state once famed for “good governance” has serious work to do to reclaim that mantle.
Some of that work should be establishing a larger role for the minority party. House Republicans, having been shut out of leader talks, were slow-walking the special session as this editorial was being written. It won’t change the final bills, because their Senate counterparts have agreed to reject changes. But a $500 million bonding bill, meant to ease the sting of Walz’s loss on his proposed gas-tax increase as a means to fix roads and bridges, may be in jeopardy because the votes of House Republicans are needed for passage.
Gazelka, Hortman and Walz made a good start in creating a different path. Hortman, who pushed for earlier deadlines, said “there has to be some hammer that drops” when the final push starts. Walz said he will make governing reforms a priority after this.
One thing they should consider: enlarging their circle to including minority leaders, as challenging as that may be. Early Friday, when Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk graciously put up the votes needed to allow work in the Senate to begin, Gazelka offered public thanks, noting that “we can’t do this if we don’t do it together.”
With that larger role for the minority, of course, comes some responsibility to make the process work.
Hortman has said she wants a “culture change.” That’s a good goal. But it starts with leaders — on all sides — pledging to work through differences and ensuring that their members do the same. That can require tough action, even replacing chairs who refuse to meet or hold hearings on major bills.
Analysis of what came out of this session will come later, whenever it ends. But add to our wish list a renewed emphasis on good governance.