Lori Sturdevant, an editorial writer and columnist, has covered state government and politics for more than 30 years.

Staggered Senate terms, anyone?

Posted by: Lori Sturdevant Updated: March 20, 2014 - 12:46 PM

This week, the Minnesota Senate's DFL majority is likely going to be very glad to see Friday come. They've been on the receiving end of a scolding by the DFL governor, thinly veiled scorn from their House counterparts, and a barrage of barbs from the GOP minority, all over their handling of politically sensitive tax and facilities issues.

At this writing, the Senate majority is aiming for redemption via approval of a $430 million tax relief bill. It's a good measure.

But critics note that the bill would not be necessary if the Senate majority had pursued different policies in 2013. The new bill includes federal conformity measures that the House favored last year, and repeals three ill-advised expansions of the sales tax to businesses that the Senate promoted 10 months ago.

The Senate also tucked planning money for a new office building for senators in the 2013 tax bill, and DFLers have been asked to defend it ever since. That building's fate now rests in the hands of a politically nervous, DFL-dominated House Rules Committee. On Tuesday, Gov. Mark Dayton accused senators of holding up this year's tax bill for the building's sake. They denied the charge -- but the Senate tax bill has been leaping through procedural hoops since.

Dayton's signature on a tax relief bill will soothe some DFL political nerves. But it's not likely to diminish the sense that the Senate isn't as attuned to public opinion as Dayton and House members. That stands to reason: Dayton and the House are on the 2014 ballot. Senators' four-year terms aren't due for renewal until 2016.

This year's tax-and-facilities drama is bound to revive interest in an old proposal -- staggered terms for state senators. Of the 38 states whose senators serve four-year terms, 28 states stagger their terms so that half of senators are on the ballot each year.

A four-year term brings a welcome long-term perspective to state lawmaking. It gives senators more  latitude to take political risks. But that risk-taking is only beneficial if it serves the state's long-term interests, not self-interest-- and does not lead to risk-takers' remorse soon thereafter.

The state Constitution gives Minnesota senators a degree of political freedom that officials in many other states would envy. My hunch is that some Senate critics would say that the Constitution is too generous in that regard, and that it should be amended to stagger Senate terms.


 

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