Previewing the 2014 Minnesota legislative session: Issues and contrasting agendas

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This week the Minnesota Legislature reconvenes. To predict the dynamics of the 2014 session one needs to understand how the governor, the House and the Senate, and the Democrats and Republicans all have different interests in what should happen in this short session. While in some cases their interests may converge, there are also powerful forces that may push them in very different directions, potentially creating interesting conflicts that set up the 2014 elections. Specifically, look to see how party, region, and chamber and branch of government create contrasting interests in what happens in the 2014 session.

The Issues

What are the major issues for the 2014 session? Passing a bonding bill is the main reason for the session. Estimates are that a bill of about $800 million is what both the Democrats and Republicans seem to want, but beyond the amount, the exact projects remain in dispute.

Second, left over from 2013 are three issues–a hike in the minimum wage, anti-bullying legislation, and a fix to the civil commitment program for sexual offenders. All three are hugely controversial items that will divide the parties. Third, the legislature needs to decide what to do with the budget surplus–spend or save. Finally, other issues such as whether to repeal the business warehouse tax, finding a more permanent funding solution for the Vikings stadium, and business law reform (something Dayton has talked about) are possibilities.

What will we not see in 2014? Government ethics reform. Minnesota’s government ethics laws in terms of disclosure and conflict of interest are vastly out of date. The legislature made it worse last session in voting to change the gift ban law for themselves, making it yet again possible for them to be wined and dined by lobbyists. Representative Winkler is correctly proposing in HF 1986 to undue this exemption, but it will be a shocker if this legislation passes. But even if it does more reforms are needed. The state could use a revolving door bill to place limits on former legislators from coming back and lobbying the legislature at least for a year. About half the states have laws like this. More lobbyist disclosure, legislator conflict of interest of laws, ethics laws for law governments, and contribution limits to the parties and caucuses are all needed. But don’t expect to see any of these reforms proposed.

The Coming Elections

Overshadowing the session are the 2014 elections. The governor is up for re-election as is the entire House of Representatives. This is not necessarily a good year for Democrats. No this is not 2010 all over again where anger against Obama and health care reform mobilized Republicans, depressed Democrat turnout, and swung independents toward the GOP. This year Dayton’s approval ratings are riding high, as are Senator Franken, and perhaps there are some coattail affects here. Yet in a non-presidential election year Minnesota’s voter turnout drops to the low to mid 50s–a 20 or so plunge from presidential election year turnouts. The biggest loss comes in terms of voters who generally support Democrats–the young, women, and people of color. Democrats can do well this year in Minnesota, but they need to mobilize their base and keep the swing voters on their side.

This means, at least for the Democrats, that they want this to be a short legislative session where they can get their main task accomplished–passing a bonding bill–while giving the Republicans little opportunity to find anything to use against them in the election. Thus in general Democrats will not push too hard this session, much to the dismay of many of their supporters. Conversely, Republicans are looking for inroads, wedge issues of use to them that will rally their base and peal away independent voters from the Democrats.

Don’t look to see gay marriage be a 2014 general election issue. It is a loser for Republicans, except as an issue to use within the party to beat up fellow party members.

Contrasting Political Agendas

However, the DFL House, Senate, and Dayton have contrasting interests. The entire House is up for election and the DFL there do not want to tackle issues that will hurt them. The Senate is not up for election. At best, there are probably no more than a dozen or so seats that are swing in the House, and the DFL will need to hold them to keep their majority. Look for them to avoid medical marijuana and anti-bullying legislation. Both are too controversial and may be perceived to be issues that produce political backlash from conservatives. Moreover, the DFL has said that they want to move on minimum wage, but again don’t look to seem them push for a wage that really makes a difference. It would make sense to pass meaningful minimum wage laws and with a built-in index for future automatic increases. The DFL may have only this session to address the minimum wage issue and if it were smart it would take advantage of the opportunity.

No one wants to touch the sex offender civil commitment program. It is probably unconstitutional but any change in the law lends to potential partisan criticism that the other is soft on sex crimes. This is an issue that both parties would rather see go away–at least until 2015. Alternatively, the GOP would love the DFL to act, giving the former a great issue for the 2014 elections.

Additionally, the DFL needs to decide what to do with the budget surplus. The House would love to be Santa Claus and do a tax cut–such as repeal the business warehouse tax–or provide other cuts that will be politically popular. The DFL Senate does not see it that way, perhaps preferring to save it in a rainy day fund. So far Governor Dayton has not made it clear what his priorities are, and his interests may be closer to the House in terms of what to do.

Among other types of legislation that need to be addressed is fixing the fix. By that, the fix to the Vikings Stadium funding is still not financially secure it needs revisiting. The money to pay for the state’s share of the stadium is still not built on a secure revenue stream and unless another one is found, the public will be paying for the stadium out of general revenue. Looming over the session also will be MNSure. How it operates in the next few months and what might be done legislatively about it may be one of the make or break political issues in the coming session.

Finally, plans by Polymet mining pose a huge risk for the DFL, potentially pitting urban progressives and environmentalists against unions and Iron Rangers. While there are no immediate calls for legislative action on this issue there is still the potential that it could creep up in bills, forcing the Democrats to make difficult choices.

Conclusion

No legislative session is devoid of politics. The same will be true in 2014. How that politics plays out in next couple of months will tell us a lot about what might happen in the November elections. For now, look to see how the issues divide along the party, branch and chamber of government, and region. – See more at: http://schultzstake.blogspot.com/2014/02/previewing-2014-minnesota-legislative.html#sthash.nIN8ZpgQ.dpuf