This has been a legislative session like no other. Conducting the business of lawmaking in the midst of a pandemic created restrictions that once would have been unimaginable.
Hearings have been conducted largely through Zoom, with testimony sometimes limited to minutes. Citizens haven't been able to gather and make their voices heard on issues of the day, either in protest or support. Lawmakers have gone months without seeing one another in person or have met mostly masked and socially distanced.
The result has been less camaraderie, less real debate and airing of concerns, and less participation. The pandemic has made it much too easy for each side to retreat to their own corner and tune out dissent. Lawmakers, it must be said, have been under tremendous pressure to deal with extraordinary crises involving public health, civil unrest, mass unemployment and a pandemic-triggered recession, all while enduring illness in their own ranks, and restrictions that made their jobs harder.
But let's be honest: Lack of transparency at the State Capitol did not start with the pandemic and, if we aren't careful, it won't end with it. Now that the mask mandate is being dropped, we urge the Legislature to make a renewed commitment to openness but also — in a word much derided in the past — to process.
The cannabis legalization bill that cleared the House was notable for being described as having gone through community meetings across the state, multiple working groups and about a dozen House committee hearings. That is the right way to do a major bill, and the bipartisan support the bill gathered was built, in part, by its journey through those many hearings.
But that would hardly have merited notice in years past. Not so recently, most bills were expected to face a thorough, even excruciating, vetting, with testimony from interest groups, opponents and the public at every stage.
John Kaul, longtime lobbyist and former chief of staff to legendary Senate Majority Leader Nick Coleman in the 1970s, has had a front-row seat to the political process at the Capitol for decades. In the aftermath of Watergate, he said, there was a fresh commitment to openness in government, a dedication to processes that were accessible to the public.
"It used to be that almost every bill went through multiple hearings that looked into everything," he said. "Every detail. Every group heard from." Policy deadlines were real, he said, so that bills could finish in time for conference committees to take the several weeks needed to negotiate differences in House and Senate bills. Those conference committees, by the way, met almost daily, poring over details and taking still more testimony as they sought to negotiate differences. This year, police reforms that passed the DFL House have had little luck in the GOP Senate. Not only did the Senate back out on an earlier promise to hold at least a "goodwill" hearing, in the last week — on the days when the Senate has control of the conference committee on police reforms — it has declined to meet and has made no counteroffers. In the House, a bill on electronic pulltabs with a $1.3 billion impact was given a single hearing before heading to a conference committee. A Senate chair recently threatened to hold up the entire two-year environmental budget over a "clean car" regulation that would promote electric vehicles. Instead of testimony and expert opinions, Minnesotans get fiats.
The old process wasn't perfect. It was laborious, and plenty still managed to happen behind closed doors and after hours. But there was a serious attempt made to finish the people's business on time and after serious consideration of all sides.
Monday is the last day of the regular legislative session. Even before Gov. Tim Walz extended Minnesota's state of peacetime emergency for another 30 days on Friday, no one expected the massive amount of work needed to pass a two-year budget to be completed by then.
That means yet another special session, where the process gets even more condensed. What's the remedy? "Unless the people care, legislators won't care," Kaul said. "They are not getting any pushback. For most of the half century I was there, there was a strong ethic to get things done and to hear all sides. Right now, the people's voice is missing."