Legislative session accomplished more than expected
On Monday, the full picture of the legislative session came into view after Gov. Mark Dayton signed or vetoed nearly all of the remaining bills passed in the final days of session. Characterizations in the media are all over the map. Over at MinnPost.com, Steve Dornfeld called the session “long on rhetoric and short on results.” The Star Tribune took the middle ground and concluded that the legislature avoided the “do-nothing” label by passing the bonding bill and a stadium bill, but spent much of their ink outlining opportunities lost. On a more positive note, the Pioneer Press highlighted the business perspective and identified “key accomplishments forged despite deep political divisions.”
I tend to side with the Pioneer Press perspective. It is certainly true that a few opportunities were lost, but that happens every session.
The reality is, the circumstances leading into the session forecasted a rather dire outcome with more bruising battles and little agreement. Republican majorities in the legislature and Governor Dayton came to the session still sore from a knock ‘em sock ‘em budget fight over the summer. Even without sore feelings, it’s hard to imagine a wider ideological chasm separating Minnesota’s DFL, “tax the rich” governor from Republican legislators that owe their majorities, at least in part, to tea party activism. Now add in the fact that the Legislature started from a very poor negotiating position on almost every issue. Why such a bad position? First, it’s an off-budget year and nothing truly must pass. Second, Dayton clearly had one priority, a new Vikings stadium, meaning there was little else he wanted to gain in a bargain. Finally, the DFL members of the legislature had much to gain in the next election from affixing the “do-nothing” label to the Republican majority.
The session wasn’t always (or often) pretty—politics is a contact sport—but the above circumstances were largely overcome. The Legislature clearly made a decision to send Dayton bills that he would sign. Of the major omnibus bills—including transportation, higher education, environment and natural resources, game and fish, pension, health and human services (HHS) finance, HHS policy, agriculture, and bonding—only the education finance bill and the tax bill were vetoed. The legislature came back with a second, policy-focused education bill that gained the governor’s approval, leaving just the tax bill unsigned. Aside from Dayton’s ill-advised veto of the tax bill, credit must be given to the Dayton administration for their work on many of these bills.
Admittedly, Dayton also vetoed 31 bills. Some may argue that all those vetoes prove dysfunction and an inability to get things done. It may actually reflect the opposite. To guarantee things got done, the Legislature spared omnibus bills from the more controversial measures and, instead, sent the more controversial bills separately to the governor’s desk. It’s also important to note that all but four of the vetoed bills had bipartisan support. Most of those bills went to the governor’s desk with fingers crossed; not just to score a political point.
In the end, more was accomplished over the course of the legislative session than anyone could have reasonably expected, especially considering the chasm separating the Legislature and the Governor never narrowed.
All of the immediate problems facing the state were addressed. Most of these issues related to public health care programs and were taken care of in the HHS finance bill. A number of key initiatives were passed to improve education, health care, human services programs, infrastructure, regulatory burdens and the quality of our natural resources. And, regardless of my opinion on the bills, I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the successful passage of the bonding bill and the stadium bill.
The Legislature even resolved a couple long-running and seemingly unresolvable issues. They found agreement on how to repeal the moratorium on radiation therapy facilities. And they wrestled management of school trust lands from the Department of Natural Resources and transferred it to a permanent commission.
It’s true that not much was done to address long-term, structural budget problems. Understandably, neither the Legislature nor Governor Dayton were interested in reopening a robust debate on spending and taxes after last year’s budget battle. Nothing productive would have emerged from that debate.
Nonetheless, budget deficits are indeed forecast for the next biennium and beyond. The Legislature and the Governor could have done more this session to improve how the state budgets, without getting into a scrap over taxing and spending.
Right now we don’t make a serious effort to assess whether state tax dollars are being put to their highest and best use. The current budget process basically starts with the last budget without ever asking whether the last budget delivered the results we expect. A better budget process would identify the outcomes citizens expect from government, measure whether those outcomes are being met and tie every dollar spent to the efforts that best achieve those outcomes.
While there were no official changes to the budget process this year, there are still opportunities for the Legislature and Governor Dayton to improve the budget process from their respective camps as they prepare for the next session. The success of next year’s legislative session—a session that will require tough budget decisions—may depend on it.
Peter J. Nelson is the Director of Public Policy for Center of the American Experiment in Minneapolis.