The most important education I received on my journey to becoming a family physician came from on-the-job training in hospital corridors. My freshman year in the Minnesota Senate felt a lot like an internship within the hallowed halls of our State Capitol. I learned much, and not all of it was encouraging — memories of meaningful work are undercut by recollections of absurd amounts of wasted time and effort.
I was blessed to have good mentors on both sides of the aisle to help me navigate the Legislature, and here are seven lasting impressions:
1) Gov. Mark Dayton had a tough job negotiating with legislators because “sticking to his guns” did not necessarily accomplish anything and compromising could be perceived as vacillating. As discussions progressed, his desire to honor his ardent supporters probably collided with pledges made during hard-fought deliberations.
2) In choosing statesmanlike behavior over political posturing, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka had to deal with the risk of being perceived as weak or a “pushover.” He was anything but that — in fact, his quiet and respectful demeanor created avenues for dialogue previously absent.
3) Speaker of the House Kurt Daudt had the difficult task of building consensus among House Republicans in the midst of a restless combativeness that pervaded the last days of the session. Political jousting may have looked good in short-term skirmishes, but energy devoted to relationship-building can produce greater likelihood to get the work done.
4) Legislators were too willing to go into attack mode to build “political capital.” Vultures picking at roadkill have nothing over righteous politicians when it comes to targets such as the Metropolitan Council or the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority. Sometimes we too easily see others as enemies.
5) When grandstanding exceeded thoughtfulness, bitterness tarnished the process. There was too much showmanship coming from all directions — legislators, staff, commissioners, lobbyists and even constituents. Nobody was blameless.
6) Republicans and DFLers both claimed the moral high ground, and this was laughable considering that such selfish declarations had little to do with reality but everything to do with the political sport of “messaging.”
7) I’m not sure how to fix our problems. Early deadlines and spending targets did not prevent another special session. The wee hours of the last night of the regular session found fatigued senators debating huge omnibus bills — a recipe for “less than our best.” And even though Dayton did sign our final budget bills, his frustration with the end results was painful to watch, and the uncertain outcome of defunding the Legislature reflects poorly on all our efforts.
How might we do better?
1) Senate floor discussions should actually have an impact on how we vote. Otherwise, raw partisanship will continue to deny Minnesotans what they want most: effective, efficient and transparent government.
2) The minority party must play a larger role than merely exercising tactics to obstruct the will of the majority.
3) The media should have as much access as possible to see what we do, because without their diligence, our state government would be less open to public scrutiny and a critical ingredient for accountability would be absent.
4) We should candidly and courageously discuss our differences of opinions without allowing political correctness to impede our search for solutions.
I am relieved that a biennial budget has been achieved without a state shutdown, but I expect future legislative sessions will continue to be driven by partisan self-righteousness and polarizing zealots.
Is there a pathway to make the Legislature the bright shining beacon that it might be? Do we need to throw all current elected officials out and start over? Would a statewide referendum on term limits help bring about some of the reform that needs to happen?
I am a rookie senator, and I’ve had the chance to look the enemy of good government straight in the eye — the enemy is all of us with our never-ending rants and demands and divisiveness. Together we must find a way to join forces to make common sense more common, political gamesmanship less prevalent, vulture-like behaviors less accepted and respectful disagreements part of our discourse.
We can do better.
Scott Jensen, R-Chaska, is a member of the Minnesota Senate.