Regardless of our differing political views, all Minnesotans should be unhappy with the final result of this year’s session of the Minnesota Legislature.
For a time, we thought a “C” grade would be appropriate. That would be a “C” for “Compromise,” because both DFL Gov. Mark Dayton and the Republican-controlled Legislature had to give ground on numerous issues to get a deal done.
Then, in the final hours, the GOP inserted language in a budget bill that would have defunded the state Department of Revenue if the governor did not sign the tax relief bill passed by the Legislature.
The governor eventually signed the tax bill after first saying he would allow it to become law without his signature, but then he cast a line-item veto of all funding for the Legislature in the next two years, creating an instant constitutional crisis. In less than a week, their grade dropped from a “C” to an “F.”
Our view is that Dayton wanted to avoid a government shutdown, which will come July 1. He had already forced special sessions and helped create one shutdown in the past. He didn’t want another. And with a $1.6 billion budget surplus, no need existed to cause one.
The governor and legislative leaders negotiated as hard as they could and came up with compromises. No one was happy, but all could walk away saying that they had done their best.
But DFL interest groups began protesting that the governor had caved, giving away too much.
A year ago, the governor vetoed a tax relief bill because of a typographical error. To ensure that he would not find another reason to veto their tax relief this year, the GOP inserted language that would have defunded the Department of Revenue.
So, in a tit for tat, the governor defunded the Legislature, but said that he would call them back into special session (which only he can do), if they agree to five additional concessions: eliminate tobacco tax breaks, cancel a $1 million increase in the estate tax exclusion, remove a freeze on the state’s (not to be confused with local governments’) commercial-industrial property taxes, remove language in the Real ID bill prohibiting illegal immigrants from obtaining drivers licenses, and renegotiate changes in teacher licensure provisions.
The global agreements, reached in closed-door horse-trading, gave nobody what they wanted but everybody got something. The GOP may not have been up front about the language defunding the Revenue Department (indeed, some of the GOP’s own legislators said they did not know it was in the bill), but since the governor signed the tax relief bill, no damage to the overall agreement resulted — until Dayton demanded to go back to the bargaining table.
Three points need to be made about this:
First, this is what happens when partisanship is put in front of sound public policy. By forcing Dayton to sign the tax relief bill with the threat of defunding an entire department, the Republicans demonstrated no trust. But just as they disrespected the governor and the principles on which he was elected and for which he was fighting, what does it say about the governor when he demanded that they put their own pay and that of their staffs ahead of the principles on which they were elected and for which they fought?
Second, last-minute brinkmanship is a negotiating tactic designed to bring extra concessions. However, it only works when an adequate amount of respect and trust exists between the two sides. By their own actions, state leaders have shown how lacking those two assets are.
The Legislature needs to recognize this changed reality and either amend its rules or, to include limits on the governor as well, a constitutional amendment. It’s no longer acceptable to pass bills that legislators and the governor’s staff haven’t had time to read, let alone understand.
The term “all-nighter” should only apply to high school prom goers or college freshmen preparing for finals, not to the elected leaders of 5.5 million Minnesotans.
Third, some will argue that the cause is divided government in and of itself. How much easier things would be if we could dismiss out of hand those with whom we disagree? However, the electorate in aggregate has voted for divided government. Wise leaders would accept that reality and make do.
Unfortunately, our leaders have disrespected the voters, the intent of state government and each other. Go to court, if you must, to settle your differences, but given that four of the seven justices were appointed by Dayton, don’t expect anybody’s credibility to skyrocket as a result.
The best outcome would be for Dayton to call a special session, the Republicans to withdraw the language defunding the Revenue Department and Dayton to refund the Legislature. Then they both should say they’re sorry to each other and to the state. The governor should then tell his unhappy supporters that he did the best he could and sign the bill with no other changes. Anything less would cast doubt on this state’s ability to govern itself.
– An opinion of the ECM Publishers Editorial Board.
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