Bipartisanship at the Minnesota Legislature? Believe it

  • Article by: TOM BERG
  • Updated: May 22, 2013 - 9:24 PM
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This gold-leafed copper and steel Quadriga, "Progress of the State," was placed on the Minnesota Capitol in 1906.

Photo: Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

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After several years in absentia, bipartisanship returned to the Minnesota Legislature in 2013, in varying degrees. As a result, the common good was served. It wasn’t always pretty, but in the end it happened.

The Republicans, being the minority in both the House and Senate, fought hard, making their points through the use of parliamentary maneuvers, multiple amendments to bills, threats to use precious time at the end of the session with still more amendments and other perfectly legal legislative tactics.

The DFL, holding the governorship and majorities in both the House and the Senate, had the authority and the responsibility to govern. While clearly exasperated and at times angry with their Republican colleagues, the governor and DFL legislators kept their cool and continued to move key legislation toward passage. And, very importantly, they did not use their majority power to stifle all debate or amendments. Deals were cut and compromises were made. The legislative session ended on time, and in a reasonably orderly and civil manner.

Sure, there were disagreements between the House and Senate, and not everything got passed, but that is a common occurrence in a bicameral legislature, even when both are controlled by one party.

In 1976, for example, when the DFL also controlled the governorship and the House and Senate, things got so bad between the two legislative bodies that, at the last minute on the last night of the session, the legislation to authorize the building of the Metrodome and a key fiscal bill failed to pass. The Senate majority leader was so frustrated that he kicked out the glass in a Capitol door as he left at 2 a.m. (The Metrodome authorization bill was passed the next session and peace returned to the feuding DFL factions.)

In another parallel to a bygone era when the parties worked more or less together to make the state a better place, the Republicans in the 2013 session acted not unlike the Senate Republicans in 1975. In both cases, Republican leaders could easily have forced a special session, but they did not. Instead, they decided that it was in their caucuses’ best interests and in the interest of the state as a whole to cooperate, and they agreed to an orderly ending of the legislative sessions.

While not all may agree, a $38.3 billion two-year budget with the responsible taxes to pay for it; an insurance exchange to help implement the nation’s new approach to health care; a constitutional amendment so that voters may authorize an independent commission to set future legislators’ pay; a cultural change to allow same-sex couples to marry; all-day kindergarten throughout Minnesota; improved school and local government aids; giving child-care providers the right to vote on whether they want a union, and badly needed funding to keep the State Capitol building structurally sound and a source of pride for Minnesota represent real progress.

Not perfect, but not bad for a state that just two years ago was shut down for a historic 20 days because of fierce partisan gridlock.

Let’s hope the lively (but civil) debates, the political arguing and competition among the House, Senate and political parties to present the best ideas continue in the coming years, along with a willingness to ultimately come together for the common good.

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Tom Berg, a former Democratic Minnesota legislator, is the author of “Minnesota Miracle: Learning From the Government That Worked,” published by the University of Minnesota Press.

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