When Minnesota legislators ended their 2015 lawmaking season with two major bills stalled in partisan gridlock, they voiced hope that conditions more propitious for dealmaking would emerge in time for the 2016 session.
That session starts at noon Tuesday with those hopes largely unrealized. The DFL-controlled Senate and the GOP-led House are obliged to pick up Tuesday where they left off last spring. Little has changed in the past nine months, save for the increasing tension of an election year in which no statewide office is on the ballot and legislators’ electoral fates are linked to the most volatile presidential contest in decades.
That backdrop is bound to factor in every major move legislators make in the brief 10-week regular session. If nervous legislators in both parties are most concerned with keeping their fractious bases satisfied, last year’s paralysis could continue, to Minnesota’s detriment.
But the presidential race offers a larger message we hope legislators heed: Voters have had their fill of gridlock-prone, politics-as-usual government. Legislators in both parties were elected in 2014 with promises of progress toward solutions of vexing state problems. They can expect to feel voters’ wrath if they don’t deliver.
A lot needs doing in a session foreshortened to accommodate the reconstruction of the State Capitol, where only the House will meet this year. The Senate has decamped to the sleek new Minnesota Senate Building, which was designed to accommodate House floor sessions this year as well. The House’s refusal to leave the Capitol is more about politics than practicality, and strikes us as petty.
The two chambers’ physical separation is bound to complicate legislators’ task. It should not be an excuse for more of the closed-door negotiating that Minnesotans saw too much of last May, to little good result. Legislators should be on notice: Public tolerance of their lack of transparency has grown thin.
Atop this year’s to-do list is the unfinished business of 2015: the transportation and tax bills. They’ve become a de facto package deal. Legislators will be hard-pressed to muster majorities for one without the other — and even then, they’ll need plenty of pressure, particularly from the business community, to find agreement. The deal we think would serve Minnesota best: new money for transportation, including transit, in exchange for a prudent portion of the tax cut Republicans seek.
“A prudent portion” grew smaller with the latest state budget forecast, which foretold an economy slowing as the baby boom generation retires. The state’s spendable surplus through June 2017 stands at $900 million, down from $1.2 billion, and only half of that sum can safely be used for ongoing obligations. That’s a limit legislators should respect. Maintaining state government’s hard-won fiscal stability ought to be a top priority.
If a tax-transportation deal does not gel, a third major bill — capital investments — also will be in political jeopardy. Its enactment requires sufficient bipartisan goodwill to win a 60 percent supermajority. With interest rates rising and Minnesota’s infrastructure backlog growing, the Legislature would be foolish to throttle back this year. The “bonding bill” is one of its best tools for shaping the state’s future prosperity.
A long view is in order as legislators assess other pleas for a share of surplus dollars. A worker shortage is projected to be a drag on state economic growth for the next decade. That constraint can be eased by state efforts to make the most of Minnesota’s existing human capital and attract more.
The Legislature has a particular obligation to address growing worker shortages in government ranks. For example, more than 8,700 vacancies now exist among 99,000 state-funded positions for care providers for the disabled. Best Life Alliance, a coalition of care providers, says low wages — an hourly average of $11.87 — are contributing to a labor shortage it deems a crisis.
Lawmakers should also seek to narrow a growing demographic divide between metro and Greater Minnesota. It’s putting state government’s ability to function at risk. Laid-off Iron Range workers have an urgent need for an unemployment benefits extension; many would benefit from retraining assistance. A response to their plight should come in the new session’s first days, unburdened by additional measures.
A “One Minnesota” agenda should include an overdue boost in state aid to cities and counties and more effort to bring broadband Internet service to underserved portions of the state. The latter represents one-time spending rather than an ongoing obligation, which ought to add to its appeal this year. Work should also continue to craft a state strategy for closing racial disparities in income, education and other measures of well-being.
All of that may be a lot to ask of an election-year session with an abbreviated calendar. But Minnesotans ask much of their state government, and through the decades, state government has largely lived up to their trust. Today’s legislators should accept keeping of that trust as their highest duty.