Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Why Are We Shocked the 2018 Minnesota Legislative Session Ended in Disaster?

Why anyone should be shocked that the 2018 Minnesota Legislative session ended as one of the least productive in the state’s history?  It would have been more shocking if the governor and the
legislature had been able to agree on anything.
The roots of the problems that explain the 2018 failure are both long and short term, as well as structural and unique.  Recall first that recent Minnesota history foreshadowed  what happened this year.  This year was yet another example of what can be called the “new normal.”  The new normal refers to a process dating back 20 years where special sessions, government shutdowns, and failed legislative sessions are the rule and not the exception.  The new normal in Minnesota reflects a changing political climate in the state that started about 20 years ago.  This is no longer a solidly DFL state.  As the shifting partisan control of the governor’s office and legislature have shown over the last 20 years, Minnesota is a politically competitive and divided state.  Clinton’s relatively narrow presidential victory over Trump in the state in 2016 demonstrated that. 
Look at a map of Minnesota. It reveals from the presidency down to legislative and local races clear patterns of DFL and GOP control.  More importantly, the two major parties are polarized along a range of issues ranging from health care, mass transportation, taxes, guns, abortion, and preschool funding.  The two parties are relatively equally divided in strength and along their values, making  compromise difficult.
Secondly there is a collective action problem.  There is a collective interest in compromising and reaching political agreement in a timely fashion, but there is little individual or partisan incentive to compromise. Among the 201 seats in the Minnesota legislature, no more than about 15-20 in the House and perhaps a maximum of 10 are from swing districts.  The remainder are strongly Democratic or Republican, representing districts where legislators are elected to stand firm onto their partisan views.  It is only those legislators who come from the s wing districts–those with a real chance to flip from one party to another–is there an incentive to compromise.  Strong partisanship in one of these districts is a political liability.   A paucity of swing seats means less pressure to compromise, and throw in strong party government in the state and even in those swing seats there is powerful pressure to vote straight party line.  Third, reinforcing this partisan divide is a money and politics issue.  By that, entrenched special interests spend heavily via lobbying, independent expenditures, and contributions to candidates, parties, and legislative caucuses, solidifying partisan preferences and making compromise nearly impossible.
The above three forces are structural and long term.  But there are also personality-driven, unique, short term forces that made it no surprise nothing really got done.  First, Governor Dayton  was a lame-duck presiding over a Republican legislature.  One should never have expected them to cooperate given what had transpired for the previous seven years.  But add to that a GOP angry that Dayton last year line-item vetoed their funding in an effort to get them to make some policy changes.  The Minnesota Supreme Court gave the governor a Pyrrhic victory that Dayton threw away the start of this session when he restored funding to the legislature. 
Dayton got nothing from his veto.  He should have demanded policy changes first before he restored funding.  In effect, that court victory that looked so good to Dayton did him no good.  Instead, it angered the GOP who effectively decided to ignore the governor in his last session.  He was not going to get anything he wanted and instead the Republicans were going to pass what they wanted and play to their base.  They forced the governor into vetoes, with the aim being that they will run against a do-nothing DFL this fall.  The GOP simply decided that it will show its base what it can pass if they elect a Republican governor, and it did what it wanted to do in 2018.  Thus, this session started with the governor’s veto and the 2018 elections hanging over it, guaranteeing little would be accomplished.
Finally, there is a leadership issue here.  While parties or party polarization may be strong, leadership is weak in the sense of being able to prevent individual members of the legislature from offering bills to appease interest groups or constituents.  Moreover, safe-seat legislators are less dependent on party leadership and can pursue or push special legislation, often without fear that leadership will punish them for it.  This happened in 2017 and it happened again this year. Additionally, it just does seem any of the principal legislative leaders or the governor have the leadership skills to move beyond partisanship.
Overall, we should no longer be shocked that gridlock has become a defining characteristic of Minnesota politics.  The state has become a microcosm of so many of the problems found at the national level, suggesting diminished prospects for Capitol cooperation for the foreseeable future.

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