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Find A Better Way to Govern

March 6, 2016  Duluth News Tribune

Minnesotans won’t soon forget how last year’s session came to an end. The chaos in the Capitol. Lawmakers shouting, demanding to be recognized, to testify. The backroom deals. The gavel pounding. And the bills passed without anyone having a chance to read them. So much noise. So much frustration.   

The deep divisions and partisan politics only worsened after the session, this fall, when lawmakers and Gov. Mark Dayton weren’t able to get together on something as seemingly no-brainer as extending unemployment benefits for laid-off Iron Range workers and their families. Fellow Minnesotans were in real need of humanity, of a bit of help, the sort of thing that has become almost routine in Minnesota and one of the basic reasons government exists. What they got instead were weeks of political opportunism and partisan bickering until no help was offered at all.

So what happens after Tuesday when a short legislative session kicks off in St. Paul with a long list of things to do, a few of them in pretty critical need of actually getting done? It’s a bonding year, but can Minnesota’s DFL governor, DFL Senate and Republican House find enough common ground to pass a bill that will put people to work and make needed improvements and repairs to public infrastructure and facilities? Can they finalize a tax bill or a transportation bill? They weren’t able to do either last session, and then another year went by and our highways and bridges crumbled a little more. What about the shrinking budget surplus? Rural broadband? Or early education and family leave, both issues identified by the governor as priorities?

There’s even talk of Sunday liquor sales coming up again this year.

 

All of this in just a few short weeks.

All of this with far too many elected leaders who haven’t been real keen of late on compromising, working together or finding agreement.

But not all our elected leaders. In the darkness are a few flickers of optimism, a few lawmakers who actually are pushing to change the way things have become; to encourage openness, transparency and middle ground; to do things in a better way; and to get things done.

They include Duluth DFL Sen. Roger Reinert who, 10 months ago, introduced a package of bills to create “good government” in Minnesota. He knew his measures wouldn’t pass, but maybe they could spark a conversation, he said; maybe they could get a few of his colleagues and others around the state to start thinking in new and more-productive ways.

“Minnesota has a strong history and tradition of leading the nation in good government and transparency practices,” Reinert said in a statement in May. “This package of bills would help make the political process less partisan, less divisive, and would encourage greater transparency.”

So it was worth at least talking about a Legislature with no party affiliations, which was among Reinert’s proposals. No Democrats. No Republicans. Just Minnesotans watching out for each other and our collective best interest. The Legislature in Minnesota actually was free of party affiliations for more than 60 years, from 1913 until a law change in 1973.

Reinert also suggested an open primary system, a tougher-to-meet threshold to attempt to amend the state Constitution, a nonpartisan review of Minnesota’s many tax deductions, and a three-fifths supermajority vote any time a lawmaker proposed shifting funding away from K-12 education.

Also, Reinert is a co-chairman of the so-called “Purple Caucus,” an unofficial coalition of legislators promoting the worthy principle of “Minnesotans first, other labels second.”

In the same spirit, more recently, Republican Rep. Duane Quam of Byron, Minn., near Rochester, said he was pushing for greater public access to the legislating process via paperless committee hearings in St. Paul. Documents would be made available online instead, he said, according to the Rochester Post-Bulletin. “Any steps to increase public access to information being used by state legislators has our support,” the newspaper opined in January.

Also in January, Rep. Paul Thissen of Minneapolis, the DFL House minority leader, introduced a package of legislative reforms of his own not unlike Reinert’s last year. The goal was even similar: more government transparency.

Thissen’s measures included longer public notices prior to legislative votes. In other words, legislators would need to leave enough time to read bills before they voted on them. He also advocated waiting periods before former legislators could become lobbyists; earlier deadlines for legislation, allowing more time for meaningful debate and review, both by our elected leaders and the public; an end to working after midnight during the last two weeks of the legislative session so bills aren’t passed “in the dark of night”; an end to the loathsome practice of attaching unrelated and controversial or unpopular measures to larger bills because they don’t stand a chance of passing on their own; and more public access to the conference committee process.

“Changing the culture of the place and how people have operated for years and years, that’s always hard,” Thissen said when announcing his measures, according to news reports. “But rebuilding the trust in government and changing the process so the public can be involved is worth making a few people uncomfortable.”

Whether anyone is made uncomfortable or not, such reforms can work. Such reforms clearly are needed. Minnesotans definitely deserve better than the way last year’s legislative session came to an end.