Legislators galore from around the country have arrived in downtown Minneapolis for this week's annual summit of the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), a Denver-based organization that's been a spur to better state governments for 40 years. Its agenda is chock-full of discussions of both public policy and legislative best practices.
At a general session Tuesday, NCSL will salute one of its founders, former Minnesota House Speaker Martin Olav Sabo. Sabo, now a retired U.S. congressman from Minneapolis, was a leader in the late 1960s and early 1970s of a movement to modernize the nation's legislatures so they could more promptly and effectively address public needs. He was NCSL's third president, in 1976-77.
While Sabo served as speaker from 1971 through 1978, much changed at the Minnesota Legislature. Annual sessions, open meetings, open records, party designation, year-round staffing, a private office for every legislator, a professionally-staffed research division, regular redistricting, the arrival of significant numbers of female legislators and minority-race representation all happened during those years.
One might say that the modern Legislature was invented on Sabo's watch. But in an interview last week, he deflected credit elsewhere, including to the voters of Minnesota, who approved the change to yearly sessions.
Bill Kelly, a former Minnesota House tax committee chair who also served a stint as an NCSL staffer, says Sabo is too modest. He says Sabo brought several crucial ideas to Minnesota from NCSL and one of its predecessor organizations, the National Conference of Legislatures, which Sabo also chaired. One was insisting that House Research be nonpartisan, and therefore credible regardless of which party was in control. Another: giving the House minority the chance to appoint their own members to standing committees, allowing them more opportunity to develop expertise and shape legislation.
Today's Legislature continues to benefit from those changes. But it's been some time since legislators seriously asked the question that Kelly said drove reform 40 years ago: Is state government up to the challenges of modern American life? Two state government shutdowns within the last decade suggest to me that Minnesotans ought to call that question again.