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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Constitutional amendment

Don’t sink healthy changes by pairing them with proposal for a full-time Legislature


Lawmakers in St. Paul should resist a proposal for a combined government reform amendment to the Minnesota Constitution that would open the way to a full-time Legislature.
The measure, as the Timberjay reported last week, has cleared an initial committee hurdle and, if it continues to advance, it could be on the state ballot this November. As proposed, the measure has some excellent elements, including the establishment of an independent redistricting board comprised of five DFLers, five Republicans, and five members not associated with either party. Such commissions are generally the fairest way to craft legislative and congressional district boundaries, as is required after each U.S. census.
The measure would also prohibit lawmakers from becoming lobbyists for one year after leaving office. We’ve seen too much of the revolving door in St. Paul, where lawmakers curry favor with well-heeled special interests for a few terms, then cash out with lucrative lobbying deals immediately after leaving office. It certainly has the appearance of a conflict of interest and this measure could at least put a delay mechanism on the revolving door.
Unfortunately, these two worthwhile provisions would likely go down in flames were they paired with the lifting of the longstanding constitutional provision that limits the Legislature’s time in session to no more than 120 days in any biennium.
We suspect that most Minnesotans would oppose lifting that restriction, and for good reason. For one, we question whether giving lawmakers more time will lead to better state government, only more expensive state government. Full-time legislatures in other states tend to pay lawmakers more and have larger legislative staffs than is currently the case in Minnesota. Currently, only four states— California, New York, Pennsylvania, and Michigan— maintain a truly full-time legislature, while another six states, including Wisconsin, maintain a full-time process with some modifications. Most states maintain a system similar to Minnesota, while several smaller rural states, like North and South Dakota, maintain very part-time legislatures with limited staff and low salaries.
Those who argue in favor of the change here in Minnesota, point to the difficulties the Legislature has experienced in recent years completing its work on time. From our perspective, that’s more a reflection of the highly divided nature of our politics today than it is of time constraints. As we see every year, the only time decisions seem to get made is at the last minute on the final day of the session. Without such a deadline, lawmakers and their staff could spend a lot more time spinning their wheels at taxpayer expense.
What’s more, the current time limit on our legislative sessions means that residents of each of the state’s legislative districts, particularly those outside the metro, tend to have access to their senators and representatives most of the year. When their representatives are in St. Paul, they face an onslaught of professional lobbyists, each with an agenda favoring a special interest. The more time lawmakers spend in St. Paul, the more exposure they have to the army of influence peddlers working the back offices. The average Minnesotan rarely benefits from that arrangement.
From a transparency perspective, concentrating lawmaking within a relatively narrow window helps the ever-shrinking number of news media still covering the work of the Legislature. Spreading out that work over the course of an entire year gives not only gives the lobbyists more access to the process, it’s likely to leave more gaps in coverage of the legislative process. The lack of transparency, particularly during the last-minute negotiating sessions when much of the work is finalized, is already a problem.
There is also legitimate concern that a shift to a full-time Legislature could alter the makeup of the body, replacing average Minnesotans from many walks of life, with professional politicians. There is value in a citizen Legislature, because it brings a wider diversity of experiences to the committee tables.
Proponents of the change argue that it will help lawmakers level the playing field against the executive and judicial branches, both of which operate throughout the year. That’s an argument, just not a very good one. The role of the legislative branch is to authorize state budgets, pass laws, and determine state policies and there’s no need to do that work year-round. But we expect the executive and judicial functions of state government to be there every day to provide the services the Legislature has authorized. It’s an argument that compares apples to oranges.
The bottom line? There are some good parts of this proposed constitutional amendment. Let’s not scuttle it all by combining the good stuff with a change that offers few benefits and that most Minnesotans are likely to reject.