Grading the 2013 Minnesota legislative session: C+ for DFL but F on reform and bipartisanship

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Students across Minnesota are finishing their exams and awaiting their final grades. The 2013 Minnesota legislative session is over and now it is time also to assess the performance of one-party rule in Minnesota. So how did the DFL do? If the legislative session were to be graded, it earned an overall C+ but F grades when it came to working together and in making structural reform.

Republican State Representative Steve Drazkowski, of Mazeppa, stated it well: “We had an election back in November. And yes, Minnesota, elections have consequences.” Had Tom Emmer rather than Mark Dayton been elected governor in 2010 Minnesota might well be a state that looks different today with more restrictive laws on voting, abortion, taxes, and perhaps on same-sex marriage. But Dayton did win and Republicans overreached with the marriage and elections amendments and in precipitating a government-shutdown. They were ousted, yielding the first one-party rule in Minnesota in 20 years.

DFLers promised a lot. They pledged a balanced budget with no gimmicks, a bonding bill, and a host of other pieces of legislation addressing economic development, bullying, guns, minimum wage, and unionization for day-care workers. The governor also pledged to solve the funding formula for the Vikings stadium, raise income taxes on the wealthy, invest more in schools, give some property tax relief to homeowners, and transform the sales tax system to include clothing and more services. All this the Governor and the DFL pledged to do in a bipartisan fashion. Such a pledge was made out of fear of overreach if they were to purse issues such as legalization of same-sex marriage.

No matter what post-mortem is written up, this will forever be the session as the one known for legalizing same-sex marriage. It did so largely along partisan lines and it did so in part because of intense lobbying from supporters of same-sex marriage who unleashed a drove of lobbyists at the Capitol. It also passed because of the perfect storm of shifts in national public opinion and state views that even if not supportive of same-sex marriage they were not opposed. Passage of it should relieve Republicans of advocating a losing issue for them, but its legalization may also give DFLers little bonus point in the 2014 House elections.

Democrats largely delivered on Dayton’s tax pledge for the wealthy will pay more, but largely abandoned the reform of the sales tax system, opting instead for the safer option to go after smokers with $1.60 more per pack. This tax will be used for general revenue and to help finance the Vikings stadium. In do the latter, the governor and the legislature are essentially using tax dollars to finance the stadium, and there is no clear indication that these revenues will be enough to offset the miserable pull-tab revenues. The State is addicted to addiction, counting on smokers to continue to smoke and not using the new revenue to offset smoking-related expenses.

The budget was done on time barely, and DFLers displayed terrible time-managed skills and the ability to reach consensus among themselves, revealing what came close to single-party gridlock. But whether the budget was done gimmick-free and balanced is a matter of debate. Originally pledging to pay back the K-12 shift, that was abandoned by the DFL. Additionally, the nearly $800 million borrowed off the tobacco bonds last session should have been paid back, and that too is not reflected in the balanced budget. The State failed to make any real changes in any tax law to make it more stable–such as a change in property taxes to help in-state businesses, or adjust sales taxes.

Single-party rule also produced a stripped-down bonding bill to pay for capitol renovations, money for Rochester and the Mayo Clinic, tax credits for Mall of American expansion, more money for K-12, a freeze of public university higher education for two years, a daycare unionization law, and some property tax relief for home owners. One should also not forget that the health care exchanges were created to allow state implementation of Obamacare. All of these are significant accomplishments. The DFL failed on enacting anti-bulling legislation, a new minimum wage bill, and significant gun legislation. For all of these changes the DFL deserves an overall C+ grade–it delivered on many of its promises.

Yet the legislative session failed to produce much in terms of bipartisanship. Too many of the votes followed party lines, revealing a state largely divided. Both the Democrats and Republicans will go to the voters in 2014 telling their side of the story, leaving Minnesotans the final verdict regarding whether the Democrats deserve to hold on to the governorship and House majority control.

Finally, where the DFL really failed was in terms of structure reform. There was no comprehensive sales or property tax reform. There was no major reform of the way government does business. But more sadly, the biggest story the media has taken a pass on is how this is a legislative session that not only failed to take the chance to make structural reforms but actually moved in the wrong direction and caved into lobbyists and special interests on a range of issues. The legislature passed campaign finance un-reform legislation that would increase contribution and spending limits dramatically, allow for lobbyists to give more gifts to legislators, and also increase the level of disclosure for contributions, thereby making it easier for many, including lobbyists, to give more money but with less disclosure and transparency. To a large extent, this is a dismantling of the remaining vestiges of the Marty reforms from the 1990s and a giant step back in government integrity. Minnesota has already had shrunk and fallen from its heyday when it was national leader in political ethics, earning failing and near failing grades from the non-partisan Center for Public Integrity in these areas. The new changes do nothing to reverse that trend. For these reasons, the session deserves an F when it comes to structural reform, doing little to change the way the State does business for good.