It’s a brand-new, fast-changing, shock-a-day political world — and I’m not just talking about developments in Washington.
Last week in St. Paul, the Republican-controlled Minnesota Legislature and DFL Gov. Mark Dayton agreed on a major health premium relief bill, in response to the defects of Obamacare.
Take it from a statehouse scribe who frets about overusing the word “gridlock”: This was a big positive deal.
Yes, it was too slow in coming. Needless partisan wrangling left the Minnesotans who need help buying health insurance too long in the lurch. Yes, it leaves much work ahead to achieve the goal that Minnesota’s political tribes say they share: affordable health insurance for all, covering medical care that’s consistent and accessible everywhere in the state.
Yet after two years in which routine lawmaking was exceedingly difficult and the hard stuff didn’t happen at all, this compromise can claim breakthrough status. The final deal involved Republicans accepting the most workable version (Dayton’s) of premium relief and Dayton bucking some in his party to accept a favorite Republican idea, allowing for-profit insurers to sell policies in Minnesota.
As Dayton intended to tell Republican legislators in his State of the State message Monday — and finally did Tuesday, picking up where he’d left off when his scary fainting episode cut his speech short — “If we all give a little, Minnesotans will gain a lot.”
Of course, he said something a lot like that in his inaugural address in 2011, the last time he shared the Capitol with a House and Senate both controlled by Republicans: “Let’s get Minnesota working again, by working together. That is what we were elected to do.”
That plea notwithstanding, 2011 brought a prolonged partisan brawl, a three-week partial government shutdown, and, ultimately, a budget so shaky that it led to a downgrade in the state’s credit rating on Wall Street.
Predictions that state government would reprise that bad show this year were common among us soothsayers after the November election. The futility of the last two years made it easy to think, “We’ve seen this before. It won’t work.”
Last week’s legislative productivity has me reverting to cautious optimism. That, plus my observation that this session differs from the 2011 version in potentially telling respects:
• The state budget is in the black. It’s always harder to agree about how to inflict pain than to share rewards. The 2011 deficit was the deepest yet after a decade of recurring money woes. Good fiscal options were already long gone when new Republican majorities arrived on a promise to block tax increases and Dayton took office on a promise to make the wealthy shoulder more of the state’s tax burden. Both felt justified in pressing those promises to the brink of the state’s biennium and beyond.
This year’s forecast of a $1.4 billion surplus in the coming biennium means there’s no need to relitigate the “no new taxes” fight. There’s also awareness that voters’ unhappiness with the 2011 shutdown contributed to the ouster of GOP majorities in 2012. Republicans are keen to avoid repeating that history.
• The Senate is in a different place — and I’m not referring to its new building. The 2011 Senate was controlled by Republicans for the first time in 40 years. The majority caucus contained a majority of first-termers. No one in that caucus had ever chaired a spending committee or negotiated a budget with the House and the governor. What’s more, all senators were serving two-year terms, as happens once every 10 years to accommodate redistricting. The 2012 election colored every move they made.
This year’s Senate majority is beginning a four-year term. It can take a longer view. Though its majority leader is new to his role, its other leaders are more seasoned. Many of them remember the 2011 shutdown and its aftermath quite well. And a very narrow 34-33 majority gives Senate Republicans a built-in incentive to produce the kind of bills that can garner broad support — like Thursday’s premium relief bill, which won a 47-19 Senate vote.
• Dayton is no longer a rookie governor. In his seventh year in office, he’s got his eyes on his legacy more than on the 2018 election, in which he says he will not be on the ballot. That could make him more stubbornly resistant to GOP ideas that he considers contrary to Minnesota’s best interests. But it could also make him more willing to make deals that offend some elements in his DFL base. He did as much last week on the health premium relief bill.
Last week’s Dayton news may have altered Republicans’ willingness to play a rough game of political hardball at his expense. His fainting spell Monday, revelation of a prostate cancer diagnosis Tuesday and 70th birthday Thursday generated a wave of appreciation for the lifelong public servant that many Republican legislators not only observed, but also joined.
Dayton has nearly two more years remaining in his term. Yet he’s begun to take on the aura of an elder statesman. Minnesotans will see in coming weeks whether he can use his changing image to his advantage, and theirs.
• The national political scene is no one’s dependable ally. If the first week of the Trump administration is any indication, Americans are in for an unsettling ride. All bets are off about the national mood and turnout in 2018 and how they might affect state politicians.
Legislators would be well-served to forget about riding a national wave and do all they can to burnish their own records of accomplishment. It would be a fine thing if both parties could credibly run on the claim that at least in Minnesota, government works.
Lori Sturdevant, an editorial writer and columnist, is at email@example.com.