Nearly halfway through Minnesota’s legislative session is a good time to assess progress (or its lack) in the only divided state government in the country.
The report is decidedly mixed.
On the plus side, DFL Gov. Tim Walz, Republican Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka and DFL House Speaker Melissa Hortman have worked at building relationships behind the scenes, where it counts. They have mostly given one another space to define their roles with one another and their constituencies and to build a different, far less rancorous dynamic than in years past. Hortman said she and Gazelka still meet weekly. Gazelka brought his daughter to a recent breakfast at the governor’s residence. All three regularly pass up opportunities to take public shots at one another.
That kind of effort and restraint is undervalued in politics these days, but is some of the hardest work leaders from opposing parties can do. Grandstanding is much easier. It grabs headlines and satisfies the extreme parts of the base. But it does little to advance the difficult task of joint governance.
That’s also not to say these leaders won’t clash. They have vastly opposite agendas, with few areas of natural agreement.
And that’s what could spell trouble for this session. Comity only goes so far, and words have not always matched actions. The GOP Senate declared most major elements of the Walz agenda dead on arrival, from his transportation package with its 20-cent gas tax increase, to his revamping of health care, his bonding bill for infrastructure, the 2050 climate change plan, and so on. Notably, not only did GOP senators decline to carry the governor’s bills — once a fairly typical courtesy — but committee chairs would not hold hearings on them, effectively shutting down the debate needed for thoughtful compromise at the end. The Senate’s continued stalling on Minnesota’s federal election security funds, making this state the last in the nation to use that money, is indefensible and should end promptly.
There are some good signs, too. After talking with Walz, Gazelka earlier this week asked his chairs to begin hearing the governor’s bills. That was the right thing to do. Senators are free to debate, amend and even defeat those proposals. But don’t ignore them. That does a disservice to Minnesotans who want to see those ideas pressure-tested. But it shouldn’t have taken nearly half the session. Walz is within his rights to wonder if the other side is simply “running out the clock,” as he put it at a news conference earlier this week.
Fortunately, there is time to work out even major differences. The elements of compromise are there, and away from the cameras and lights, will be discussed. Hortman said she remains optimistic because “we’ve all accepted the concept that everyone has to have wins out of this. This doesn’t end with the blue team winning everything or the red team winning everything.”
Coming off an election that installed a new governor and changed the House majority, Minnesotans should not settle for an incremental, turn-of-the-screw session. This state has big problems to tackle: on health care — particularly in light of President Donald Trump’s fresh attacks on the Affordable Care Act — on taxes, on roads that recently got a D grade from the American Society of Civil Engineers, on gun violence, on how best to eliminate school disparities and improve the state’s problem-plagued technology, and, yes, how better to tackle waste and fraud. We’d like to see both bodies come at these crucial questions with renewed energy.
The template exists. In a notable example of bipartisanship, Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, and Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, did yeoman work to push through a hands-free cellphone bill that succeeded where last year’s failed, carefully addressing concerns and working through differences. That bill now is in conference and should go to the governor soon. Both bodies are making good progress on ways to address the opioid crisis, another measure that stalled out last year.
Gazelka recently relented on gun violence bills, saying the Senate would hold hearings on universal background checks and red flag proposals that remove guns from those found to be a danger to themselves or others, once those bills pass the DFL House. It shouldn’t be necessary to place conditions on scheduling hearings, but the majority leader’s move is a positive step.
There is much work to be done between now and a scheduled adjournment of May 20. A 10-day recess that starts in mid-April will further compress the timeline. Minnesotans should use that time to put legislators on notice that they expect real progress and a timely finish.