Sorry experience has taught Minnesotans not to expect a great deal from legislative sessions. The three-month lawmaking exercise that ended at about 12 a.m. Monday may not meet even those lowly expectations.
The final word on the 2018 Legislature’s accomplishments won’t be known until after DFL Gov. Mark Dayton’s 14-day window for action on bills closes on June 3. But the scores of objections the Dayton administration raised about the content of bills during the session’s closing weeks, and the absence of genuine negotiations between the Republican-controlled Legislature and governor to resolve those differences, suggests that the seven vetoes Dayton cast before adjournment are only a start.
Under veto threats are two of the session’s three biggest measures: a bill that spends $131 million through mid-2019 that is so chock-full of policy provisions that its printed version requires 985 pages; and a federal tax conformity bill that is nearly identical to one Dayton vetoed Thursday, save for the addition of a $50 million transfer from the state’s reserve fund and the repurposing of up to $175 million in existing funds in response to the governor’s call to boost K-12 funding.
The third big bill, a bonding bill for public works, was sent to Dayton on Sunday, minutes before the state Constitution’s midnight deadline. At $825 million in general obligation bonds, it skimps on upgrades for higher-education campuses and bypasses transit, though it includes more than $400 million in trunk highway bonds. Over the objection of environmental advocates, it also uses lottery proceeds earmarked for environmental purposes to finance $100 million in projects with higher-interest appropriation bonds. Dayton dislikes the bill’s design but is believed likely to sign it. It could be the year’s only major accomplishment.
“The Legislature has done our job,” House taxes chair Greg Davids, R-Preston, said after the House passed the tax bill. We respectfully disagree. Lawmakers’ jobs are not done until a majority of legislators and the governor agree that bills should become law.
No handshake deals were reached on any of the bills both sides said were priorities. Little effort was made to achieve accord. Dayton made one formal compromise offer on taxes and spending on Saturday, which was almost immediately rebuffed. Soon thereafter, Republicans brought the governor an offer for school relief that Dayton rejected. That was the sum total of face-to-face endgame negotiations.
Republicans then modified their tax and spending bills in response to some of Dayton’s previous objections and sent the bills to the governor with no assurance that they would be signed into law. In the case of the mammoth spending bill — nicknamed #OmnibusPrime on Twitter — floor votes were taken only hours after the bill was released. Few legislators — not to mention members of the public — knew its full contents.
Avoidance of face-to-face bargaining was seen on both sides. Dayton’s late-in-the-game plea for an emergency $138 million boost in K-12 funding was launched with a flurry of gubernatorial school visits, but with little sign of gubernatorial lobbying with the legislators who would have to deliver it. House education funding chair Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie, said Sunday she had not been invited to meet with Dayton all session.
Dayton complained a few hours later that he had been denied the opportunity to meet with key tax and spending committee chairs to discuss the particulars of those bills. “Compromise is when you negotiate,” he said. “It’s not when one side throws something in your lap and says ‘Here’s the compromise.’ ”
The session’s final day — when both sides should have been earnestly seeking the favor of the other — featured sporadic scoldings, a veto override attempt, a legislative move to delay the administration’s new groundwater protection rule and Senate refusal to confirm a Dayton appointee to a licensing board, evidently because she had publicly criticized President Donald Trump.
It was a display of deepening dysfunction in an institution on which Minnesotans rely for significant contributions to their quality of life. This year, many Minnesotans wanted state government to act to keep guns away from dangerous people, improve school safety, crack down on an epidemic of abuse of elderly residents of care facilities, combat an epidemic of opioid addiction, ban use of handheld phones while driving, give sexual-harassment victims a fairer day in court, and so much more.
Most of those aims were missed before adjournment. If Dayton vetoes the tax and spending bills, the remainder will be left undone. That much futility is more than disappointing. It’s corrosive of an essential ingredient in a successful democracy — public confidence in government.