It’s May in Minnesota. Time to put away snow shovels and parkas, plant crops and flowers, buy a card for Mom — and keep a wary eye on the Legislature, which is rushing toward its May 21 expiration date.
That last item evidently was already on readers’ lists two weeks ago when the Star Tribune Editorial Board issued a call for questions about the legislative session. What would you like to know about what’s been going on at the State Capitol? we asked. Plenty, it seems. Here’s a sample:
Why can’t legislators do their work without first being told what to do by their caucuses?
David Collins, Park Rapids
David, you’ve put your finger on a big change in the legislative process in recent years. Caucuses have always had a lot of clout, even when they were called Conservatives and Liberals rather than Republicans and DFLers. But the caucuses of yore typically confined “caucus positions” to major bills on which members were expected to stick together. On scores of lesser bills, members were free to vote as they saw fit, or to “vote their district” when the views of their constituents and caucus majorities diverged.
In recent years, however, there haven’t been many lesser bills. Smaller measures tend to be rolled into omnibus bills, often in hopes of convincing a reluctant governor of the opposite party to allow them to become law and — so it appears — to keep caucus members on a tighter leash. Here’s a telling stat: The 1967 Legislature passed 909 bills in regular session and 60 more in a special session. Last year, the comparable numbers were 82 and 7.
I want to know why our number of legislators is 201 with a population of 5,380,000 and California has 120 for a population of 38,000,000?
Nancy Edwards, Wayzata
The short answer: “Because Minnesota is a New England state.”
Minnesota’s leading citizens during the territorial years when such decisions were made hailed primarily from Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts and upstate New York. They descended from the anti-royalist Puritans of the 17th century, governed their villages with town meetings and their churches with congregational votes, and preferred part-time “citizen legislatures” in which, in theory, power could be widely shared. It’s no coincidence that the largest legislature in the nation is New Hampshire’s, with 424 members. Minnesota’s is the nation’s fifth-largest.
Why can’t they get anything done? All they seem to do is bicker and finger-point like children. If you’re going to wait until the last two weeks to pass everything, (why not) save the state some money and make your session only last a month?
John Joachim, Taylors Falls
Legislative sessions long enough to allow for citizen input are another manifestation of Minnesota’s New England heritage. The state’s founders created a process for enacting bills that includes a lot of stops along the way so that the public can watch and comment. The Legislature’s bicameral structure was designed with a similar concern in mind. It’s supposed to lessen the chances for folly, even though it slows things down.
The bad habits the Legislature has acquired at the end of sessions in recent years don’t serve that purpose. Legislative sessions now allow for ample citizen input in the early going but very little transparency as decisions are made in a rush near the session’s end. I’m loath to curtail the conversations of February and March. But I’d exchange some portion of them for a more deliberate pace in May.
I’m a constituent of (former state Rep.) Paul Thissen in 61B. Who represents me during this legislative session? We in 61B have the largest voter turnout in the state … . Are we just voiceless until November?
Mary McKelvey, Minneapolis
You are. Sorry. When Gov. Mark Dayton appointed former House Speaker Thissen to a vacant seat on the Minnesota Supreme Court on April 17, 34 days remained in the 2018 session. The statutory process for calling and completing a special election requires a minimum of 38 days, according to Dayton’s office. “An election cannot be completed in time for an individual to be seated during the current session,” a release from Dayton’s office said.
If it’s any solace, Thissen’s move is rare. He’s believed to be the first person in state history to move from the state House one week to the high court the next.
Before legislators bring a bill to committee … is there a requirement to determine if the proposal aligns with the U.S. Constitution and Minnesota Constitution?
Lawrence A. Ellis, St. Paul
When bills are drafted by the Office of the Revisor of Statutes, potential constitutional issues are flagged so that the bill’s sponsors are aware of them.
But those alerts do not stop a bill. Deciding whether to proceed with a constitutional inconsistency is the job of legislative committees and, in particular, subcommittees, according to Jack Davies, a former state senator and appellate judge. Davies more than qualifies as an expert on the modern Minnesota Constitution. He consolidated the state’s two 1858 constitutions into the one that the voters ratified in 1974.
Davies laments that today’s Legislature seldom employs small subcommittees to delve deeply into bills and, among other things, check their constitutionality. With more small panels, more legislators’ ideas would be incorporated and the quality of legislation would improve, he says.
Giving parties the option to use ranked-choice voting in their primaries could facilitate far greater voter engagement … . What laws govern how primary votes are tallied and how complex of a task would it be to give parties this option?
John Bussey, Minneapolis
OK, I cheated. This question isn’t much about the Legislature. But it is about an elections change that is proving itself nicely in Minneapolis and St. Paul and could be a democracy-enhancer if used statewide. In multicandidate primary elections, ranked-choice voting (RCV) would give more advantage to candidates who can achieve broad support from the party’s rank-and-file, rather than allowing a candidate at the ideological fringe to win with a plurality that falls considerably short of 50 percent.
A change in state law would be required to use RCV in partisan primaries, the secretary of state’s office says. It likely would also take plenty of lead time to upgrade equipment and educate the electorate, as was the case in Minneapolis and St. Paul and will be true in the next municipality to try RCV, St. Louis Park. There, RCV was adopted last month and won’t be used until November 2019 at the earliest.
But the biggest impediment to taking RCV statewide is a political one. Republicans control the Legislature now, and their party platform opposes RCV. That party turned against RCV after watching Tim Pawlenty win three-way races for governor in 2002 and 2006 with less than 50 percent of the vote. Speculation had it that the outcome may have been different if RCV had been used.
Speculation here has it that if the 2018 election produces a different result for Republicans, they may change their RCV tune.
Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer. She is at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter at @sturdevant.