By the end of Week One at the Minnesota Legislature, the lines of communication remain intact, the dreaded “master mute button” used by the previous speaker to shut down debate has been banished, and both sides have offered substantiative, if differing, agendas.
So far, so good.
Now comes the hard part. As DFL House Speaker Melissa Hortman rightly told lawmakers on the first day of session, “We are here precisely to have conflict. It’s an important part of the democratic process” that should be approached with “good humor and humility.” Republican Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka noted that there are well-established processes which, if followed, “vet all of our ideas,” and allow the best to “rise to the top.”
Doing so will require some discipline but could be aided greatly by a commitment to what some around the Capitol are calling “early wins” — proposals with broad consensus that legislators could pass early in the session, establishing a productive habit of moving bills out across the next five months instead of saving every conceivable item for a last-minute bargaining chip.
We are hopeful that some such items are already shaping up that could make a positive difference in Minnesotans’ lives and give citizens something to cheer about in the deep midwinter.
Among those that appear to be gaining early consensus is a bill that would require the use of hands-free technology when talking on a phone while driving. After stalling out in the last session, the bill has gained strong bipartisan support, and legislative leaders on all sides appear enthusiastic about passing it this time and making a dent in the growing problem of distracted driving. There are still some questions as to the degree of the penalty — and rumblings about making it a felony should be squelched — but these need not be drawn out long.
Another victim of last session’s dysfunction was election security. Secretary of State Steve Simon argued ardently last year that the Legislature find its way to granting the permission needed for his office to access the millions of federal dollars allocated for that purpose. That effort failed. House and Senate majority leaders should make it an early goal to grant that authority and allow those improvements to get underway. The state has already lost valuable time in advance of the crucial 2020 election cycle. There is so little dissension on this one that we consider it a good candidate for passage in the next few weeks.
Here’s one more no-brainer: The Republican-led Senate last year passed a bill that would have required pharmaceutical companies to pay fees that would help fund prevention and treatment programs and county social services to address the opioid addiction crisis that continues to grow. It never came to a vote in the GOP House. Hortman has expressed support for opioid legislation, as has Gov. Tim Walz.
Passing those bills early would prove to Minnesotans that this new crew can work together for the good of the state.
There was a time when early compromise was not unheard of at the Capitol. Charlie Weaver, head of the Minnesota Business Partnership and a former legislator and commissioner, said such bills used to be part of the strategy for a successful session.
“Getting some early wins gives you momentum,” he said. “You create some relationships right away, some trust that if you make a deal, you’ll stick with it. Those early deals really build that kind of structure that’s so important.” Reinstituting that practice is vital now, he said, “because right now we need to re-establish public faith in institutions. I don’t think you can overstate the need for that.”