In early January, a month before legislators returned to St. Paul, a high-profile push to address the racial achievement gap splashed onto the political scene.
Two respected Minnesota leaders, former state Supreme Court Justice Alan Page and Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis President Neel Kashkari, unveiled a proposal to add a right to a quality education to the state Constitution.
The effort faced tough sledding from the start. Prominent lawmakers in both parties raised concerns, along with influential political players such as Education Minnesota, the teachers union.
Then the coronavirus hit. And, like much of normal life, the effort disappeared from public view. Now, with just over a week left in the session, Kashkari and Page said they’re shifting their focus to next session — and the 2022 ballot.
“The COVID crisis is magnifying disparities across the board. Unfortunately, this includes our statewide education disparities, as many families simply can’t access online learning,” they said in a joint statement. “As Minnesota recovers from this health crisis, we are committed to pursuing a constitutional right to a quality public education for all of our children.”
The Page Amendment isn’t the only high-test fight to chill during the pandemic. Proposed bills on guns, paid family leave, marijuana legalization, Twin Cities crime initiatives and a proposal to cut Social Security taxes for seniors are just a few of the political casualties.
“We reduced a lot of the stuff that wasn’t going to go anywhere from one side or another,” said Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka.
As Gazelka acknowledges, many (if not all) of these hot-button measures weren’t going to pass this year anyway given the partisan split between the chambers. The parade of news conferences and votes on each side’s priorities would have served a more political purpose: to fire up the base and provide fodder for campaign ads and attacks come fall.
Many issues will still come up in campaigns, as both sides jockey for control of the Legislature. After the elections, like clockwork (or Groundhog Day), a fresh round of bills will be introduced to reignite debate in a new Legislature — and with luck, one not still operating on an on-call basis.
A November outcome that puts Democrats in control of the Senate could give new life to some agendas but make others more problematic, including the Page Amendment.
But the political landscape for 2021 and beyond is even less certain than usual.
The coronavirus crisis has already blown a projected $2.4 billion hole in the state budget. Dealing with that will be a focal point of next session, no matter who wins. And it’s possible another wave of infections in the fall will again demand lawmakers’ attention.
Activists, including those behind the Page Amendment, have pledged to forge ahead. But when it comes to clarity about the future political dynamics, we’ll have wait until pandemic fever subsides.