Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Another Minnesota legislative session, another that goes to overtime: Reflections on the Causes of Minnesota Legislative Deadlock

Another Minnesota legislative session, another that goes to overtime.  Too many cliches describe
where Minnesota politics is now.  One can say that it was entirely predictable that the 2019 legislative session would not end with a final budget passed.    In fact, as I argued two years ago, this is the new normal in Minnesota.

Minnesota’s Growing Dysfunctional Politics

A quick review of recent Minnesota politics should prove that the state may not have the most dysfunctional legislative politics in its history, and over the last generation, it has one of the worst track performances of any state.

Of the now 53 special sessions that now have occurred or will this year since statehood. 24 or 45% were called to finish required budget work not completed during regular session.  This suggests that getting all the work done during the constitutional deadline has always been a problem but it is even more so in the last 20 years.

In the last 20 years special sessions are far more frequent and have shifted from occurring on average once every four years (since statehood) to three out of four years.  Since 1999, there have been ten legislative sessions devoted to the budget, eight of them have required special sessions. We have had two partial governmental shut downs (one under Dayton in 2011, one under Pawlenty in 2005), and a near shutdown under Ventura in 2001.  Also under Pawlenty in 2009 there was a significant budget fight that involved his unallotment of money to balance the budget that was eventually struck down by the Minnesota Supreme Court in 2010. And in 2017 fights over the budget led Governor Dayton to line-item veto the legislature’s funding. Getting to yes in Minnesota is increasingly more problematic.

The Causes of Dysfunction

There are several reasons for the increasing dysfunction in Minnesota politics, and they all played out in the 2019 session.

First, Minnesota’s partisan polarization mirrors national politics.  The two major political parties have polarized down to the point where they represent distinct geo-political regions in the state.  This polarization divides along the issues of the role and purpose of government, taxes, spending and social issues.  The Democrats and Republicans represent increasingly contrasting views about the world, and given the agenda of the House DFL and the Walz Administration, it was no surprise the Senate Republicans would oppose tax increases and other spending priorities.

With Minnesota as the only state in the national with a legislature split in terms of partisan control of the two chambers, rival views on government and what it should do were obviously going to cause problems.  Winner-take-all politics is a feature of the new normal; one-party wins it all and it simply moves its agenda.  Dayton and the DFL did that in 2013-2014, and no doubt Walz and the DFL are hoping 2020 elections do the same for them.

But partisan dysfunction is only one reason for the new normal.  A second problem may be that government has become so complex that the budget process is broken.  Maybe at one time the length of sessions was enough to put together a $1, 10, or even 25 billion budget, but it may simply be insufficient time to do it for a near $50 billion one with a part time legislature.

Third, as I have argued for nearly 15 years, the budget process is broken.  It makes no sense to have a fiscal forecast, do a budget (with often a previous governor), inaugurate a new legislature into session, wait several weeks for a gubernatorial budget, then wait a few more weeks for a new fiscal forecast and then a revised budget from the governor.  By the time all this occurs, the legislature has lost perhaps two months time.  How the budget is made, along with timings and deadlines, need fixing.

Fourth, legislators are human.  They are prone to the same procrastination as so many others are.   Tough choices often await final last-minute negotiations because humans simply prefer to avoid them.  There seems to be a dearth of leadership or ability to corral legislators to overcoming an institutional time-management skill problem.

Fifth the new normal is also a product of an increasingly flawed election process.  Single-member, first-past-the post elections encourage production of polarized safe legislative seats where individual representatives and senators have little incentive to work together.  Additionally, the state has done little in the last 20 years to address issues such as special interest money, lobbyist influence, and other structural matters than corrupt the legislative process.  The two major parties have become captured by group interests that effectively make compromise impossible, and our elections process only takes a bad problem and exacerbates it.

Finally, the new normal means that the electoral and political sting of legislative failure are gone.  There is such a low expectation that the governor and legislature will reach agreement on time that no one expects they will.  Repeated shutdowns, missed deadlines, and other political fights mean tht voters probably no longer punish representatives for special sessions, thereby meaning that legislative members too no longer fear it.

Conclusion Fixing Dysfunctionalism 

There is no single silver bullet to cure the above dysfunctionalism.  Reforming the budget process, campaign finance reform, and  ranked choice voting are among the needed cures.  Unfortunately, the  very reasons why the legislative process has become so dysfunctional and broken also bode against it being able to fix itself.  Maybe longer-term the fix is simply demographics, where an increasingly  urban state turns the state more DFL, allowing for one-party rule to prevail.    Yet it is not a certainty that demographics are a political destiny to cure dysfunctionalism–Trump and the GOP could be competitive in 2020 in Minnesota–leaving the new normal in place for years to come.


  1. Good analysis. We have a different problem in NY -- Governor Cuomo has emphasized on-time budgets to the extent that getting the budget passed within the deadline is more important than getting the budget right. The governor proposes a budget mid-January, then we wait a few weeks while the Assembly and Senate propose their own budgets. Almost all of this occurs in caucus sessions, not in public hearings at regularly scheduled times.
    Then the economic forecast comes out and the governor revises his budget proposal, cramming into it as many policy issues as possible in hopes they'll pass. Then comes the infamous "three men in a room" (now two guys and a female) where the leaders of the majority party in each house sit down with the governor behind closed doors and hammer out an agreement with no public input or oversight. The result? legislators find a towering pile of paper (900+ pages this year) on their desks the night before the final vote. NO ONE knows what is in the budget they're voting on, just how their party leader has told them to vote -- but damnit, it passed on time!
    Weighted voting would help, as you point out, and so would non-partisan redistricting commissions -- which would eliminate the ever more safe districts the majority party carves out each 10 years.
    Campaign finance is another issue: it was recently revealed that the Speaker of the House reported a single $50 contribution from within his district last election. Of course, he received tens of thousands of dollars from major corporations and real estate developers with millions of dollars of business before the legislature each session.
    Something is rotten in Denmark - and Minnesota -- and New York.

    1. Sorry, that should be the Speaker of the NYS Assembly.