Legislative dysfunction appears to have become the rule in St. Paul, and Minnesotans should be outraged.
The Legislature had four primary tasks before it when House and Senate leaders convened on March 8— agree on a method for funding repairs to the state’s crumbling transportation infrastructure, address the state’s non-compliance with Real ID requirements, pass a bonding bill, and determine what to do with the state’s estimated $1 billion budget surplus.
After two and a half months, all paid for by the taxpayers, the Legislature managed some tax cuts and little else. Left undone was a bonding bill, a fix to the Real ID issue, and a transportation funding deal.
Why even bother to hold a legislative session?
The 2015 session featured similar stumbles, and legislators did nothing this year to erase the sting of that lackluster performance. If anything, it confirmed a divided state government can be as ineffective and clouded by partisan bickering as Washington at its worst.
Not only did the Legislature fail to do its job, it demonstrated yet again, its apparent unwillingness to operate in the public eye. While much of the session is open to public scrutiny, in the final days, as the mandatory adjournment date nears, the real decision-making too often happens between top party leaders behind closed doors.
That doesn’t serve the public at all, and it leads to mischief, such as the provision snuck into this year’s tax bill at the last minute by Republicans that eliminated a previously-approved tax hike on cigarettes and e-cigarettes. The move will cost the state about $32 million in lost revenue, but the larger issue is the total lack of transparency. Even Gov. Dayton expressed surprise when the provision wound up in the final bill, which was one of the few accomplishments of this year’s session.
If it’s not bad policy determined behind closed doors, it’s a last minute rush of legislative changes, all but guaranteeing inadvertent mistakes when bleary-eyed legislators and staffers cobble together bills in a final rush. A simple punctuation error or misplaced adjective can change the entire meaning of a bill. Rather than appropriate deliberation, the Legislature is delivering too much chaos.
Legislators had ample time to debate the issues openly and legislation should be crafted with care, not thrown together in the heat of a deadline. That’s hardly a democratic or transparent process, and it’s a poor way to end a legislative process that should be conducted in the open and with input from a diversity of stakeholders.
The onus is now on Gov. Mark Dayton to salvage what he can by calling a special session. But one can hardly fault the governor for taking his time for calling a session— which, in effect, simply enables the dysfunction that now seems to rule at the Legislature. Gov. Dayton hardly wants to reward legislators for their failures to deal with key issues and he needs assurances that when lawmakers hunker down they take their jobs seriously. So far, they haven’t proven that they do.