Maybe, like me, you’re old enough to remember when Minnesota was touted as the “state that works.” That was 40 years ago.
Or maybe, unlike me, you’re not old enough to remember when our Legislature didn’t adjourn amid gridlock and chaos.
But I’m mad as hell, and I don’t think we should take it anymore.
The 2018 Legislature adjourned its regular session after passing a grand total of 82 bills. That’s an average of about one per day from convening to adjourning. As noted by my former mentor in political reporting at the Minneapolis Tribune, Steve Dornfeld, the bill total this year was less than 10 percent of what the 1967 Legislature accomplished, back when lawmakers convened only in odd-numbered years.
Maybe the lack of legislation is a good thing if you’re a Libertarian. But the rest of us expect our elected representatives to craft and approve well-considered compromises that address emerging issues posed by advances in technology and standards of behavior.
It should be a no-brainer to require that people drive without holding cell phones to distract them. It shouldn’t be beyond the grasp of our 201 electeds to pass background check legislation for gun purchases that 90 percent of Minnesotans polled say they favor. Nor should enacting laws that help people such as my dad, 97 and in assisted living, be assured of safe care.
But not in this Legislature this year. It’s become a place of all checks and no balances. You can argue the details, but I’m confident that if you put a dozen Minnesotans in a room for a day, a majority could reach a common-sense solution to any of these issues.
Yet not our solons. They cater to the ideological wings of each party that turn out for precinct caucuses. One common-sense solution would be to replace caucuses with primary elections, to ensure that the two candidates on a ballot in November represent something akin to mainstream Minnesota values. Or statewide use of ranked-choice voting would allow those on ideological fringes to support their candidates but still cast a backup vote that gives someone with broader appeal a mandate.
Another solution would be to enact real legislative reform by requiring open deliberations and setting meaningful deadlines for legislators. Penalize committee chairs and maybe members of policy and appropriations committees that don’t meet bill deadlines. Dock their per-diem payments if they don’t meet those deadlines. Require enough time between a compromise committee report and floor approval to allow legislators and the public alike to thoroughly vet a bill. Reduce the threshold for a chamber to extract for floor debate a bill that’s being held hostage in a hostile committee. Or require that all bills be reported to the full chamber for debate, even when a committee recommends against passage. Strictly limit debate on such bills to accommodate this flow of traffic, with committee members learned in the issue getting first preference for pro-con exposition on the chamber floor.
And while we’re at it, how about enforcing the constitution or amending it further to tighten the use of omnibus or “Christmas-tree” bills. Limit this grab-bag packaging of spuriously related topics to end the practice of sneaking through bills that would never pass on their own merits.
This could theoretically be accomplished by a change in the rules adopted by the majority caucus in each chamber that govern how it operates. But can we really trust the same people who gave us this gridlock to solve it?
Especially when one chamber is led by a speaker who ended the session telling us that a distracted-driver bill will eventually pass but now is not the right time. That begs the question of how many more lives must be sacrificed to distracted drivers before the time is right. Perhaps the speaker should attend the funeral of each victim of a distracted driver over the next two years to explain why the time was not right.
The legislators who use the current system to thwart issues on which there is broad public consensus aren’t likely to cede that power without a public showing that the cost of not listening to us is greater than the cost of acceding to reform.
That depends on a bunch of you Minnesotans getting mad enough to make some noise. Are you out there? I can’t hear you.