Big policy changes seldom occur in a single session of the Minnesota Legislature. More typically, change comes incrementally over several sessions, nudged along by a few key legislators and persistent interest groups who are willing to take what they can get one year and come back again for more.
Second-term Rep. Carly Melin, DFL-Hibbing, is encountering that reality as the sponsor of a bill to legalize the use of marijuana for medical purposes.
On Thursday, Melin stood before TV cameras to announce her decision to limit the scope of her bill, so as to neutralize the opposition of the state's major law enforcement organizations. The new version of the bill will allow cannabis extracts and oils to be prescribed under clinical trials to treat certain medical conditions, and vaporized marijuana to be used under medical supervision.
That's very similar to a proposal Gov. Mark Dayton offered six weeks ago. Melin and medical marijuana advocates rejected it then, saying it did not go far enough. Some advocates say they won't support the new version. They note that a stronger bill, legalizing pot smoking for medicinal purposes, is advancing in the state Senate, and would provide relief for more conditions more conveniently.
But Melin, a 28-year-old attorney, sounded like a veteran when she explained why she's come around: "I personally wish we could do more. I don't like that some people are being left out. But if we can do something for some people -- and I'm actually of the opinion that this is doing a lot for a lot of people -- then that's actually a pretty big victory for the cause and for a lot of these families. It will allow them to access the medicine they need."
After weeks of trying to persuade medical marijuana opponents that her bill would not erode public health or safety, Melin's persuasive work is not over. She must now convince her allies that doing something beats doing nothing this year. That, too, is the mark of a good legislator.
State Rep. Jim Abeler's voice Tuesday quivered a bit with emotion, but his words and decision were clear: He won't be back in the state House next year, no matter how his bid for U.S. Sen. Al Franken's seat ends. He's "all in" as a Senate candidate, he said.
The eight-term Republican from Anoka went so far as to introduce to reporters the Republican he hopes will succceed him in the House, 26-year-old Abigail Whelan, a former legislative staffer.
Abeler is the 14th House member to announce that he or she won't seek reelection, and one of three who are bowing out of the 134-member body to seek higher office. With up to four more lawmaking weeks ahead, that list is likely to grow.
But few departures are likely to be met with as much bipartisan regret as Abeler's -- in part because it will coincide with the retirement of DFL Rep. Tom Huntley of Duluth, and comes not long after the 2011 departure of former state Sen. Linda Berglin, DFL-Minneapolis, for a Hennepin County post. Those three were longstanding legislative masters of health care policy who did much to make Minnesota a leader among the states in health insurance coverage at an affordable cost.
Legislative policy batons get passed with every election, and sometimes get dropped. That's the nature of the institution, and a challenge for legislative leaders. It falls to them to structure committees with succession planning in mind, so that junior legislators are ready to shape major bills when senior legislators step aside or their districts show them the door. It can be a tough assignment. With matters as complicated as health care, expertise builds slowly, and legislators' willingness to acquire it is not universal.
As for Abeler, he says he's eager for a chance in the U.S. Senate to apply his bipartisan style and health policy principles -- protect the client, not the delivery systems -- to national efforts to control costs. Only the occasional break in his voice revealed that he's also sad to go.
I wish I'd been standing next to the bust of Senate Majority Leader Nicholas Coleman Friday afternoon when the House Rules Committee voted 14-13 to proceed with construction of a $77 million new office building for all 67 state senators. I think I might have heard a cheer.
The building plan that barely cleared the House Rules panel must now return to the Senate Rules Committee for final blessing. But given nearly 40 years of partisan resistance to the idea of providing suitable office space for every senator, the Senate panel would be foolish not to gratefully go along with the House's version.
A new, unified Senate office facility fixes a problem that dates to Coleman's era. Legislators didn't have offices of their own before 1975, when annual sessions, open meeting laws and more professionalization threw the institution's doors open to public participation.
Senators have been scattered in the Capitol and State Office Building since then. The arrangement is hard on citizen lobbyists, especially the elderly and disabled. It doesn't do anything positive for lawmaking efficiency or collegiality, either. The Capitol's renovation is poised to make matters worse, shrinking from 45 to 23 the number of senators that the Capitol can accommodate.
Nevertheless, the proposal to correct those problems with a new building has come under heavy partisan fire as "self-serving" and unnecessary. The plan the House Rules Committee approved is an improvement over an earlier version. It houses all 67 senators under one roof and costs nearly $17 million less, mostly because plans for an adjacent parking garage have been dropped. Still, it was no surprise that it cleared the DFL-controlled House panel with no votes to spare.
Today's legislative office space dilemma traces back to the move toward a more orderly and transparent lawmaking process. That history gives a twist of irony to the unconventional process that brought the building question to the fore this year. By choosing to launch the authorization process in the 2013 Senate tax bill rather than the capital improvements bill and skimping on hearings, the building's Senate DFL backers handed ammunition to their Republican critics.
The vetting that happened at House Rules on Friday was at least a year overdue. As a result of the analysis of alternatives conducted in public view, the 14 DFLers who voted yes can at least defend their decision with facts and figures. They point to the version the House committee approved as the most cost-effective way to fix the Senate's 40-year-old space problem.
State Sen. Alice Johnson has been the champion of breakfasts for Minnesota school children through two legislative careers. The Spring Lake Park DFLer is working hard to secure $7.25 million in surplus dollars to provide free breakfasts for all Minnesota school children. She'll learn at Thursday's Senate Finance Committee meeting whether her persistence has paid off.
Free school breakfasts are a project she began 20 years ago in part one of her two-part legislative career. Johnson served 14 years in the House, from 1986 to 2000, including a stint as chair of the K-12 funding committee.
She returned as a senator in 2013, and discovered to her surprise and dismay that she could pick up where she left off on school breakfasts. The positive results of a six-site, three-year pilot project she pushed through the 1994 Legislaturs had been ignored during her hiatus from the Capitol.
That's a shame, Johnson said, because those results should have compelled action. They showed that if all children were offered free breakfast, nearly all children participated. Today, only students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunches are offered free breakfasts. Only about half of eligible students participate. The pilot project analysis pointed to one reason: the stigma of a subsidized meal is counter-productive.
When all students ate breakfast in their classrooms, attentiveness and behavior through the day improved. School nurse visits declined in number. And test scores improved, as judged by the scores of sixth graders who were offered free school breakfasts compared with their own performances as third graders, when free breakfasts were only available to a few.
Providing free school breakfasts "offers the best return on any investment in closing the achievement gap," Johnson says. She's even made a video to sell the idea.
Free school breakfasts for all are among a number of policy ideas that were advancing at the state Capitol in the late 1990s, then slowed or halted by two recessions, recurring deficits and partisan discord. Now that the state budget is in the black again, Johnson may be back at the Legislature at just the right time.
Consider it a Minnesota counterpoint to a controversial Nazi reenactors' party on Martin Luther King Day at a Minneapolis restaurant. That's the contrast that struck me Tuesday as about 100 Minnesotans -- legislators, business executives and academicians among them -- heard four scholars consider the continuing implications of the Nazi memories today's Germans bear.
Their forum, sponsored by the University of Minnesota's Center for German and European Studies, highlighted the huge German response to a recent three-part TV docudrama that aired in that country as "Our Mothers, Our Fathers." It is being screened for American audiences as "Generation War."
The film depicts the war experience of five young friends, two women, two soldiers and one Jewish man. One German critic called the series "the first and last chance to ask our grandparents about their true biographies."
A last chance to hear war participants' voices is indeed at hand. Surviving war veterans are now in their late 80s and 90s. But it may be news to Americans that some Germans have not yet had a first chance to explore the Holocaust and Nazi brutality with their elders.
Panelists explained that not until the 1990s, after Germany was reunified, did Germans truly examine Nazi history and debate the German population's culpability for atrocities. In the former East Germany, Holocaust denial was commonplace, panelists said. In some telling, the 6 million Jews murdered in Nazi death camps were characterized as war victims akin to other Germans who suffered and died from 1939 to 1945.
Today's German goverment is "actively involved in keeping the memory alive, and in educating this and future generations about German history," said Christa Tiefenbacher-Hudson, honorary consul of the Federal Republic of Germany in Minneapolis. "It's all meant to understand what happened in the past and also to prevent that it would happen again in the future." Minnesotans, too, should seek understanding of the sort that comes from sober analysis of genocidal empire-building -- not from partying in Nazi garb.
Norman Borlaug would have been 100 Tuesday. He also would have been proud and a bit embarrassed by the fuss made over him at National Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol, where Borlaug's statue was dedicated as one of the two stony likenesses allotted to the state of Iowa.
My hunch is that he might have also noted that while he was born in Cresco, Iowa, he was educated and launched on his career in agricultural research at the University of Minnesota. I knew Borlaug well enough to know that he considered Minnesota his second home.
The bronze sculpture of Borlaug depicts him as he looked while working at his third home, in Mexico. That's where he conducted his work to increase wheat yields -- and yielded strains and methods that ended starvation in much of the developing world. He won the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts.
Borlaug was described as "a great gift of Iowa" at Tuesday's ceremony in Washington. His Minnesota connection is bound to be recognized Thursday beginning at 1:30 p.m. at his alma mater, where a celebration and conference about food security in his honor is set for McNamara Alumni Center.