If — as has happened too often before — this legislative session’s big bills stay out of sight until hours before adjournment, then move so fast that only a few legislators know their contents, a scolding editorial will be in order.
But Paul Thissen won’t be in the House to provide a punchy quote.
That’s my not-entirely self-interested lament about Gov. Mark Dayton’s decision last week to make Thissen the new associate justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court. He succeeds David Stras, who left the Minnesota court to serve on the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The Minneapolis DFLer’s last day in the Legislature was Friday.
Even the Republicans who were Thissen’s sparring partners during his six years as a House DFL caucus leader agree that he’s a worthy addition to the high court. The applause on the House floor both Wednesday and Thursday acknowledging his appointment was warm and bipartisan.
But Thissen’s move from the legislative to the judicial branch of government will muzzle a “process hawk” — a legislator who has become an outspoken critic of the closed-door, hurry-up, slapdash lawmaking that has become almost routine in the final days of regular sessions.
That would include 2013-14, the years when Thissen was speaker of the House.
“I was not immune from participating in some of the bad habits we’ve fallen into here,” Thissen acknowledged when I found him in his House office filling packing boxes last week. “Experience is sometimes wisdom.”
Indeed, both parties have contributed to a trend away from openness and good order at the end of legislative sessions. But it was the bad show in 2015, when Thissen was a second-time-around minority leader, that convinced him to call for change. Since then, a quest for a better lawmaking process has become almost his signature issue.
“The Legislature, on a bipartisan basis, has gotten worse and worse about excluding too many voices as we make our final decisions,” he said. “The public doesn’t have a way to follow it and doesn’t have a way to speak to these bills in their final form. That undermines, ultimately, people’s trust in government.”
Several trends are in play, he said:
• Plain old procrastination plays a role. Legislators are prone to underestimating the time needed to achieve compromise, especially when government control is shared by both parties, and to believing — often incorrectly — that partisan advantage can be had if the time remaining for decisions is short.
• Too many policy items are being loaded into spending bills, in an apparent attempt to compel a reluctant governor to sign them. (“I should be careful about that one!” the soon-to-be associate justice reminded himself. A lawsuit claiming a violation of the Constitution’s single-subject rule could come to the Supreme Court at any time. Only last week, the court ruled that no such violation had occurred when the 2015 Legislature allowed counties to employ private auditors rather than the Office of the State Auditor for annual financial reviews.)
• Conference committees have been “absolutely undermined” as legislative leaders and the governor make closed-door deals. “Conference committees are where the Legislature’s experts can really weigh in, and where the public should have an ability to weigh in,” Thissen said. Instead, end-of-session conference committees are often reduced to rubber-stamping the deals made by top leaders.
“People get this, and they don’t think it’s right,” Thissen said. While he was campaigning for governor late last year — an exercise he ended on Feb. 7 — he saw Minnesotans’ heads nodding sympathetically as he described how even popular bills would disappear without a trace in the end-of-session sausage grinder. Or how, in 2016, minority DFLers were given the final and ultimately futile bonding bill with less than an hour remaining in the regular session.
But most legislators doubt that public dismay about the lawmaking process will ever rise to a politically potent level. That happened but once in the modern era. In 1972, DFLers made a demand for transparency a winning issue in gaining control of both chambers of the Legislature for the first time in state history.
That campaign theme is memorable in part because it’s rare. A more likely catalyst for breaking the Legislature’s bad habits would be a revolt by rank-and-file legislators. Not a few of them have gone home angry in recent years, feeling shut out in the final days of session and fearing that they’ve been made to look foolish or feckless in their constituents’ eyes.
If and when that revolt comes, those seeking change might dust off the proposals of a 16-year House veteran who confesses that he was guilty of spending too much time behind the Capitol’s infamous closed doors. Thissen has a batch of ideas, among them:
• Apply to the Legislature the same open-meeting and data-practices requirements that have been in place for local governments since the 1970s.
• Set a meaningful deadline, 14 days before adjournment, for the governor and House and Senate leadership to agree on the size of budget bills.
• Require at least 12 hours’ notice before a conference committee meets, and require each conference committee to allow public comment before sending a bill back to the House and Senate floors for approval.
• Require that conference committee reports be published at least 24 hours before final votes.
• Move the Constitution’s “single-subject rule” about the content of bills into the House’s own rules, to aid in the rule’s enforcement.
As he said a formal goodbye to the House on Thursday, Thissen pleaded with his former colleagues to “take care of this institution” by adhering to a more orderly and transparent process.
“One of our most important jobs right now is to restore people’s faith and belief in the integrity of our government and its processes,” he said. “We all have to take up that mantle … . As a former leader who has been on both sides of these issues and has abused this in the past myself, I know it’s going to be up to the rank-and-file members to make this change. I hope you will do that.”
I hope Minnesotans who value state government will give them a nudge.
Lori Sturdevant, an editorial writer and columnist, is at firstname.lastname@example.org.