Minnesota’s three most powerful politicians huddled behind the wooden door of a Capitol conference room Tuesday to hold court on reams of disputed budget matters left unresolved a day after the Legislature’s regular session ended.
Committee chairs and state agency heads filed in and out of what some jokingly referred to as the “tribunal” room. Meanwhile, the working triumvirate of Gov. Tim Walz, Democratic House Speaker Melissa Hortman and Senate GOP Majority Leader Paul Gazelka offered few updates on what was being decided inside.
By all accounts, it was not the image of open democracy that was promised in January by a new crop of state leaders.
In their silence, the public and other legislators left outside of the room could only vent about the lack of transparency and speculate about the details of a two-year, $48 billion budget that was being finalized around a set of tables pushed together. The full picture might not emerge until a special session that’s tentatively scheduled to start Thursday.
The format of small group meetings with a trio of leaders to sort through stacks of unfinished spending bills might seem unusual. But some legislators said the dynamic of top leadership making final decisions outside of the public eye is nothing new. Lawmakers will ultimately have to vote on what they decide.
“I don’t know if this year is worse than two years ago, four years ago, six years ago,” said Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville. “I wouldn’t describe it as better. It’s been a disaster for the last 15 years.”
Marty has proposed legislation mandating that all budget conference committees and negotiations between the governor and lawmakers occur in the open. He has offered the bill on and off for decades. It has received just one informational hearing — about 20 years ago.
If party leaders aren’t getting behind Marty’s measure this year, they did commit early on in the session to a more open process than in the past. In February, Walz, Gazelka and Hortman announced a series of early deadlines for budget deliberations, including May 6 to settle on overall spending numbers.
That deadline came and went without any agreement.
Hortman had said the deadline would ensure that conference committees handling issues like taxes, education and health care would have open discussions about how to spend the top-line numbers the leaders had agreed on.
“Minnesotans and their elected representatives and senators deserve a better process than having three or five leaders in a backroom deciding everything in the last few days of session,” Hortman said when the deadlines were announced earlier this year. “That whole bill drafting process will now happen in public.”
That did not happen.
In the endgame of the session, the trio of leaders did not agree to overall budget targets until Sunday night — about 30 hours before the Legislature’s adjournment at midnight on Monday. With little time remaining, hardly any conference committees met on the final day to discuss how to tailor bills to fit the trio’s budget targets.
House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, suggested the Legislature might need to change its rules to enforce the earlier deadlines.
“We are interested in finding ways to bind both sides to more public discussion and more time to get things done without going into basically overtime, like we’re doing right now,” he said.
A bill on higher education was the only major spending measure to pass both the House and Senate during the regular session. The DFL House majority tabled an agriculture and housing bill just minutes before midnight Monday, once it became clear they would run out of time. Republicans said the last minute legislating would bring “shame” on the institution — a common charge for the minority party.
Hortman said after adjournment that legislative leaders would be working overnight trying to button up the remaining bills in preparation for a special session. Asked what good legislation has ever been authored in the middle of the night, Hortman blamed the Republican-led Senate.
“I have worked really hard to increase the transparency around here, but I cannot change the culture single-handedly and I cannot do it overnight. We’ve had some difficulties with the Minnesota Senate,” she said. “They do not love doing work in the public.”
Despite the partisan sniping, legislators on both sides of the aisle said the process of having small groups of staff, lawmakers and appointed officials complete final spending legislation is not how it should work.
“This system is bizarre. It literally means the conference committees aren’t needed, and three people are going to do all the work,” said Rep. Gene Pelowski, DFL-Winona, who has worked on various government transparency efforts over his three decades in the Legislature.
The decisionmaking power seems to have shifted from “201 legislators to two chairs, leadership staff, an executive and then one, two or three quite frankly unelected commissioners in the room,” said Rep. Nick Zerwas, R-Elk River.
Zerwas, who was on the judiciary and public safety conference committee, said he respects the commissioners working on that bill, but is troubled that they are given so much power when “not a single Minnesotan voted for them.”
Nonetheless, other current and former legislators said some private deal-making is unavoidable, that without such talks the work could not get done — particularly with a politically divided Legislature.
Kurt Zellers, who served as GOP House speaker from 2011 to 2013, said the closed-door budget talks can give leaders at the negotiating table “the confidence to speak freely about where their limitations are.”
“In negotiations that is what that is all about: how do you find a place for everybody to not only get a couple of wins or have a couple of their priorities realized, but also realize that somebody else is also giving up something significant to them,” Zellers said.
But that argument doesn’t hold water for open government activists like Annastacia Belladonna-Carrera, executive director of Common Cause Minnesota.
“So what you’re saying is that the only way for individuals to come to an agreement is if it’s done in isolation and without any kind of public input,” she said. “So how is that a public official? How is that a public servant?”
Staff writers Stephen Montemayor and J. Patrick Coolican contributed to this report.