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Two legislators, Rep. Jamie Long, DFL-Minneapolis, and Sen. Lindsey Port, DFL-Burnsville, are advancing a proposal to abolish Minnesota's "citizens" Legislature and replace it with a full-time body. This move is not surprising in that it constitutes the final step in the growing legislative effort to fully protect incumbents from competition.

The Legislature, with support from both political parties, has already taken steps to protect incumbency with the creation of a massive fundraising machine that well exceeds that of both state parties and provides generous funding for legislative campaigns by catering to the moneyed interests.

Last May, the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota released a report outlining the special considerations those large contributors were granted at the Legislature, including the opportunity to "shape" legislation. Politely stated, our state government is selling public policy or, at a minimum, tailoring it for the wealthy interests.

Tragically, that Humphrey School report was largely ignored by the media, the political establishment, the business community and our academic leaders. That abandonment of responsibility cannot be acceptable in a democracy.

Also being ignored is the reality that legislators no longer represent the interests of their districts but rather have transferred that power to caucus (party) leaders who manage the enormous fundraising machine in exchange for the bounty that results. For instance, they raked in over $26 million for the 2020 legislative elections. That comes to some $130,000 per incumbent legislator when applied equally to all 201 members. However, since most districts are considered safe, those moneys are moved around and invested in contested races.

For instance, in one recent state Senate contest, the overall costs rose to over $2.3 million.

This is the power of "big money" that squeezes out normal and healthy elective competition.

The Legislature, by concentrating this awesome power in the hands of its leaders, is being transformed from a public deliberative body into one where decisions are made by the very few and, more often than not, in secrecy. This is largely accomplished by the bundling of a number of smaller bills into a large legislative package known as an "omnibus" bill. However, from this point on, the leaders take over and they decide what comes to a vote and what does not.

Add to this the massive staff buildup of partisan employees who are hired by the party caucus leaders, work at the direction of those leaders and are entirely paid for by the taxpayer. For the last election cycle, the number of partisan staffers reached over 300.

Now, legislators will argue that many do legitimate state work and that is true. However, they knowingly created this blurred system in order to disguise the actual level of partisan activity. The reality is that partisan legislative staffs are approximately seven times larger than those of both major political parties combined.

And now, the ultimate extension to fully protect incumbents from competition is to move toward a full-time and well-paid Legislature: a political governing class that is largely immune from competition.

This is totally unacceptable. We can no longer permit this consolidation of power in the hands of the few, the enormous buildup of partisan staffs at the expense of the taxpayer, and the tailoring of public policy for the moneyed interests.

Currently, there is absolutely no reason for a 201-member Legislature when power rests with a few. We could just as well have a 16-person Legislature with a small staff and house these operations in the State Capitol. This substantial reduction would also permit the sale of the legislative office buildings thereby saving the taxpayer millions of dollars.

After all, with power resting in the hands of the very few there is no discernible need for these extra 185 legislators.

Now, if we truly want a "citizens" Legislature to work, we would suggest consideration of the following reforms we outlined in our report, "The Future is Today," which was released last August.

In that report, we suggested:

  • Term limits. A "citizens" Legislature thrives on fresh ideas and fresh faces.
  • Public financing of campaigns in a fashion similar to that currently operating in Connecticut. It is designed in such a way that it maximizes the power of the public over the wealthy donors.
  • The establishment of an independent commission as advocated by Walter Mondale and Al Quie that would be charged with the responsibility of drawing legislative district lines.
  • The abolition of party caucus fundraising.

Yes, let us have a very public debate about protecting and enhancing democracy — real democracy as defined by Abraham Lincoln: A government of the people, by the people and for the people.

Tom Berkelman, of Duluth, served in the Minnesota House from 1977-83. Janet Entzel, of Minneapolis, served in the House from 1975-85. Both were Democrats. Arne Carlson was a Republican governor of Minnesota from 1991-99.