Minnesota Legislature and campaign implications

  • Article by: LORI STURDEVANT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 25, 2013 - 5:35 PM

Something both sides can and will campaign on.

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The exterior of the Minnesota State Capitol

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The 2013 Legislature was an all-DFL show. But to hear legislators from the two parties tell it, the session was a “win-win.”

DFLers went home saying they had won because they did what they told the 2012 voters they would do.

And Republicans went home convinced that they had won because DFLers did what they said they would do.

I consider that fact a marker of how wide the gulf between Minnesota’s parties remains, even though the voters consigned one of those parties to minority status in 2012.

The two parties have opposing perceptions of what Minnesotans need and want. Minnesotans want a tax increase to pay for better schools and services! No, Minnesotans don’t think a tax increase is needed to improve government! Minnesotans want the rich to pay their fair share! No, Minnesotans want the rich to stay here and create jobs!

Each side is convinced it’s accurately reading public sentiment. Each believes next year’s voters will reward its members for the positions they took this year.

But as I chatted with GOP House minority members during one of the frequent wait-for-the-Senate recesses on the session’s last evening, their confidence was striking — especially considering how little sleep they’d had in the previous four days.

These were senior members. Two years ago they were committee chairs spending hours in 10-person conference committee huddles hammering out major bills.

This year, all but a few of them had been frozen out. By Republican staffers’ counts, only six minority House members and five senators were tapped to serve with 79 DFLers on nine budget-bill conference committees.

The DFL abided by the Legislature’s unwritten rule about conference committees: To be included, a minority member must vote for the bill as it first left the House or Senate floor.

That consigned these veterans to end the session as bit players, relegated to making impassioned but futile speeches during floor debates. I expected to see frustration and anger on their faces. Instead, I saw the visages of a poker players who thought they had just bluffed their opponents into bad bets.

“We’re not angry,” said 11-term Rep. Greg Davids, the 2011-12 House Taxes chair. “We’re motivated. We can’t wait to start campaigning.”

A few hours earlier, three days of intermittent debate over one of the session’s most contentious issues had concluded with a vote that lent credence to the twinkles in House GOP eyes. A bill that would allow providers of state-subsidized care for young children and the disabled to form a labor union was approved on a telling 68-66 vote — the minimum required for passage. Five DFLers joined Republicans in voting no.

The bare-knuckles partisan sparring that this issue generated made the tense marriage equality fight of a few weeks earlier seem courtly by comparison. It hit me on about Day Two that the emotion was akin to the “right to work” rallies at the Capitol in 2012. That was no coincidence. Like “right to work,” this was about the future of labor unions and, by extension, the future of the Minnesota party with Labor in its name. But the unionization issue was also about the compensation and working conditions of a low-paid, female-dominated occupation, and by an extension that should have been a lot more outspoken, the quality of the care that low-income children and disabled people receive at state expense.

Republicans last week assured each other that by voting to allow the state-subsidized care providers to unionize, the majority had fatally overreached. (I score “overreach” as the most overused word of 2013 and vow not to use it again — in this column, anyway.)

The “gotcha” grins on GOP faces may have muzzled DFLers on the issue. When they recited their litany of accomplishment at the debriefing for Capitol journalists the next day, the child care unionization vote was not one of their bragging points. Rather, they told a tale of DFL ideas brought to fruition by DFL legislators acting largely on their own.

“Even when Republicans were on conference committees, no Republican policy ideas were adopted,” complained House minority leader Kurt Daudt. “There was no effort to come up with a bipartisan result.”

Rep. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, last session’s health and human services (HHS) finance chair, was appointed to the HHS conference committee but felt shut out as he tried to advocate for more funding for disability services. “I got a copy of the [fiscal] spreadsheet 20 seconds ahead of the general public,” Abeler said. “They weren’t looking for my advice.” He voted no.

I’d planned to inject here a call for easing the rule that only those who vote for the big bills can serve on conference committees. The final budget-shaping negotiations ought to be among the Legislature’s most knowledgeable members, and ranking minority members of committees know a lot. But Abeler’s experience shows that just getting minority members appointed to conference committees would not assure an outcome that draws from the best ideas of both sides. That requires a genuine willingness on the part of the majority to hear the minority’s ideas and take some of them to heart.

That used to happen — or so a speaker (me) recounted at a May 9 reunion of former and current state senators. It wasn’t because the rules of lawmaking were different 20 or 30 years ago. It was because leading DFL senators understood that it was good for both the state and the Senate.

That notion helped keep the DFL in control of the Senate for 38 years. I believe that’s called enlightened self-interest.

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Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at lsturdevant@startribune.com.

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