A growing legal brawl between Minnesota’s Legislature and its governor has cast the state’s elected leader into uncharted waters with no clear path to settling a fundamental dispute about the state constitution and the exercise of political power.
But Minnesota is far from the only state where political dysfunction is confounding civic progress — or spilling into the courtroom. In recent years, the kind of bare-knuckle clash that fomented Minnesota’s current crisis has become commonplace around the country as state-level politicians grapple with the same kind of vehement partisanship that also prevails in Washington.
DFL Gov. Mark Dayton’s recent line-item veto of legislative funding is a first for Minnesota, as is the Republican-controlled Legislature’s subsequent lawsuit asking a judge to undo the governor’s action. But a very similar fight is playing out in New Mexico, where spending squabbles between a Republican governor and Democratic legislators led the governor to veto the Legislature’s funding. Just like in Minnesota, legislators sued; in that case, the state Supreme Court ordered the two other branches of government to fix their self-created problems.
“The challenges that Minnesota and New Mexico are facing, in my view, reflect growing partisan polarization in state legislatures around the country, which has led to lack of consensus,” said Gabriel Sanchez, a political-science professor at the University of New Mexico.
Even short of the lawsuit now at the center of Minnesota’s dispute, the obstacles that dragged Minnesota’s most recent legislative session into overtime and threatened to force a government shutdown are far from unique.
Illinois has gone two years without a state budget and spent $6 billion more than it has taken in during that time. Washington state lawmakers, ordered two years ago by a court to resolve an education-funding dispute, are now muddling through a second special session — and being fined $100,000 per day for failing to meet the court’s demands. The Alaska Legislature, which typically passes its budgets by April, is still at work and edging toward a July 1 government shutdown.
For many states, including Minnesota, it’s frequently the unpredictable choices of voters that create the potential for dysfunction. Divided government, with the executive branch led by one party and the Legislature controlled by the other, has become a recipe for statehouse stalemate in Minnesota and elsewhere.
Dayton and lawmakers did settle a $46 billion, two-year budget this year. But the ensuing lawsuit could linger for months.
“Even if one party controls both houses [of the Legislature], the houses just have different ways of doing things and different goals,” said Jim Moore, a political-science professor at Oregon’s Pacific University. “Then you throw in the executive, as the system is intended, and the institutional goals of each of the two houses and the executive often collide.”
In Minnesota, that collision came to a head in the final days of the legislative session as the governor pushed back on GOP budget bills that included policy provisions he disliked. Ultimately, Dayton signed the budget bills and a $650 million tax-cut package, but said he did so only to avert a government shutdown. Then he vetoed the House and Senate’s budgets in an effort to make legislative leaders rethink some of the tax cuts and a handful of policies, including teacher licensing standards and driver’s licenses for immigrants living in the country illegally.
Instead, the Legislature sued Dayton, arguing he violated the constitutional separation of powers and will disable the legislative branch when it runs out of funding on July 1.
A similar story played out this spring in New Mexico, where the Democratic Legislature raised taxes and fees to make up for a budget shortfall. Republican Gov. Susana Martinez line-item vetoed the tax increases, money for higher education — and the Legislature’s budget. The New Mexico Legislature sued, mounting the same argument that the attorney for Minnesota’s Legislature is now making against Dayton.
The New Mexico Supreme Court ultimately declined to hear the case, telling Martinez and lawmakers to sort out their differences. The two sides worked out some issues in a special session, but they are now locked in a second legal battle over the timing of some vetoes.
“[The court] argued that a lawsuit is the last resort and New Mexico was not quite there yet,” Sanchez said. “This did lead to a resolution, so the court’s decision not to take the other branches off the hook worked.”
Some in state government, along with those who study it, say compromise has become harder in recent decades as politicians and voters on both sides of the aisle dig in their heels and move farther apart.
“We’ve actually seen stronger party polarization in many states than we’ve seen in Congress in recent years,” said Seth Masket, a University of Denver political scientist.
Sen. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, has served in the Minnesota Legislature for nearly two decades. Both lawmakers and average Minnesotans increasingly believe political outcomes should match their own ideology, Abeler said, rather than appreciating the give and take of politics. Coming home with 90 percent of what you set out to achieve in St. Paul reads to many like a failure, he said.
“People used to go into office with an idea they wanted to accomplish something,” Abeler said. “Some come now with the idea they want to be involved in a full-contact sport.”
But there are other factors at work. Masket said his research of legislatures across the country turned up an interesting trend in Minnesota: The number of bills that become law is dropping even as the volume of bills introduced is rising — more than 5,100 this year alone.
Most went nowhere. Others were crammed into huge “omnibus” bills rather than being considered on their own merits.
That trend is particularly troubling to another legislative veteran: Sen. John Marty, a DFLer from Roseville who has served in the Senate for 30 years. Marty is contemplating his own lawsuit, contending that many of the bills passed in recent years violate the constitution, which says laws should be limited to a single subject.
“I would argue that the time is ripe for a challenge,” he said. “The situation is worse than it’s ever been, and I can document no other recourse than the courts intervening.”