Is this year's exodus an indicator of institutional dysfunction?
Comings and goings have always been numerous in Minnesota's "citizen Legislature." They're more common in redistricting years such as 2012, yet they're often unexpected, as legislators decide abruptly to end their statehouse service or try for a different elective post.
But awareness of that pattern hasn't been sufficient to quell the unease many Capitol observers have felt this season as retirement announcements accumulated. The worry is that too many good legislators are leaving too soon in response to excessive partisanship and the lawmaking dysfunction it creates.
Thursday brought the latest announcement: State Rep. Morrie Lanning, R-Moorhead, sponsor of this year's bill authorizing construction of a new Vikings stadium, announced that he would call it quits after five terms. Lanning is a former mayor and longtime higher-education administrator who has often opted for bipartisan approaches to lawmaking. That knack served him well with the Vikings bill, but cost him esteem within his Republican caucus.
Earlier this week came word that state Sen. John Harrington, DFL-St. Paul, would leave after only one term. Harrington is a former St. Paul police chief, a college educator, a founder of a nonprofit organization that assists at-risk young men -- in short, a top-notch leader and a needed voice in the Legislature.
But when he raised that voice, he was ignored for partisan reasons, he told the Pioneer Press: "It was frustrating being in the situation where you could make all the right arguments, and it was seemingly going into a vacuum, and you couldn't change the hearts and minds because of the way the Legislature is divided."
Another surprise announcement came last week from two-term Rep. Kory Kath, a centrist DFLer from Owatonna who cited his two young children as his main reason for stepping down. But in an interview, he added: "I'm very moderate in my politics, and there are not a lot of hugs for moderates up there right now. I hope people recognize that right now, it's very hard for moderates to get things done."
They were echoing the sentiments of Senate Finance Committee chair Claire Robling, R-Jordan, whose candor as she announced her retirement earlier this year created considerable Capitol buzz. "I fear that statesmen are vanishing as partisanship deepens," Robling's retirement statement said. "It is very difficult to pass common sense measures into law these days because special interest groups block or promote agendas that only benefit themselves."
This year Robling was one of only four members of the Senate's GOP majority who had served more than 10 years. Two of those four, Robling and Gen Olson of Minnetrista, are not running again. Departures such as theirs, Lanning's, GOP Sen. Geoff Michel's and DFL Sen. Keith Langseth's are depriving the Legislature of valuable institutional memory and bipartisan habits.
At the same time, the premature exits of moderates the likes of Harrington, Kath, Republican Rep. John Kriesel of Cottage Grove, and DFL Rep. Kate Knuth of New Brighton seem likely to leave the 2013 Legislature with fewer bipartisan dealmakers. Such people are the Legislature's "closers" -- the ones who blend both parties' best ideas, set budgets and avert shutdowns when government is divided, as it has been in Minnesota for 22 years. The July 2011 shutdown is evidence that Minnesota needs more legislators with their approach to lawmaking. Instead, the closers are departing in disturbing numbers, saying that their role has become too difficult to play. Stewards of state government -- in other words, all of us -- have reason for concern.