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Why the 2015 legislative session failed (again)

Another Minnesota budget session, another failure. Unless of course one sees success in not passing much legislation or doing it within a timely fashion. But for those who believe that the state budget should be done on time and that major policy issues should be addressed in a thoughtful manner, it was another failure.

Fingers will point to partisanship and polarization as the cause (and they surely are factors) and to poor time management and leadership (which is also true), but the root of the problem really resides in three factors: First, an archaic and broken budget process. Second, the entrenched special interests that make it difficult for the two parties to compromise. Third, the disparate electoral incentives of the governor, Senate and the House.

I often tell my students that papers written during all-nighters under the influence of caffeine the day before they are due look like they were written at the last minute without sleep and under the influence of caffeine. They usually are bad. The same can be said for any policy or budgets produced in the closing days of the session with little sleep or deliberation and lots of caffeine.

What emerged in the closing days was bad legislation and compromise on so many levels — whether it be the K-12 deal that Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk and House Speaker Kurt Daudt agreed to but which Gov. Mark Dayton Dayton opposed, or the failure to address serious issues on transportation, taxes, or the sex-offender treatment program. In short, it was what appears to be a typical example of what legislative politics, especially during the budget year, has come to be in Minnesota.

Since 2000 Minnesota’s new normal has been failed legislative sessions. We have seen government shutdowns, near shutdowns, and botched unallotments. There have also been several special sessions and repeated use of budget gimmicks that hide the real fiscal problems of the state. Even when budgets have passed on time to prevent actual government shutdowns, their tardiness and funny numbers have made it difficult for local school districts, governments and agencies to plan. This year, none of the omnibus budget bills were on the governor’s desk in time for him to sign or veto before the regular session ended. An F grade would no doubt be in order for the entire process.

Of course, some will point to the legislative session last year, when the DFL largely moved their agenda and passed a significant amount of bills. Partisans will say that single-party rule solves the impasse problems at the Capitol, and no doubt this will be the message that the Republicans and Democrats use in their 2016 campaigns. Yes, partisanship, polarization, and contrasting views on government are factors, but they only exacerbate the underlying problems that the 2015 session demonstrates.

The first problem simply is that the budget process is broken. I have written about this for about a decade. Minnesota is trying to do a 21st century budget with a horse-and-buggy process. The process in place is one that perhaps once worked well 30 or 40 years ago when the budget was half as big and nowhere near as complex as it is now. The constitutional mandate for the length of the session goes back to the 19th century, when we still had this image of farmer-legislators who needed to adjourn in time to get their spring crops in. A century ago, one did not need as much time as is presently required to pass a budget and debate legislation. There was simply less to do.

The complexity of the budget process is now so great that even under the best of circumstances it is difficult to get it done in just a few months. But add to that some additional problems. First, the increased complexity of the budget and what the state does makes it harder and harder for legislators to master it in a short period of time. We had elections in November producing new legislators and House majority. How do we expect them from day one to understand how to govern and what Minnesota government does? Few of us are ready to do our jobs well in the first few months. There is a learning curve, and for state legislators that curve is the budget session. It would make far more sense to have the budget done in the second year of office, giving legislators ample time to adjust and learn.

Another problem is all about timing. The governor generally does not release a budget until late January, the final fiscal forecast which is the basis of the budget comes out late March, and then a revised governor’s budget based on the forecast is produced. At this point already two months have been wasted in the budget year. The timing of when the Legislature comes into session, the governor releases a budget, and the fiscal forecast occurs need to be changed because their present order simply encourages procrastination.

But a second underlying problem is the way money and special interest influence have made it impossible for the two parties to reach agreement. Both the Democrats and Republicans have interest groups supporting them, encouraging them to stick to their guns and not negotiate. It’s not about the gift ban law making it impossible for legislators of different parties to swill together at the Kelly Inn that prevents them from working together, it is about them being unable to resist the pressures from their constituent groups to forge compromises.

Finally, as this session reveals, contrasting electoral incentives have driven the House, Senate and governor in different directions. Here the House and Senate both face 2016 elections and therefore have incentives to cooperate. But in other years the four and two year terms put the electoral interests of the two chambers in conflict. This year, moreover, Dayton’s interests contrast with legislators: He is not up for election, perhaps ever again — and he can push for issues that legislators cannot.

Altogether, a broken budget process, special interest influence, and contrasting institutional electoral incentives are the real reasons why politics at the Capitol are now so repeatedly dysfunctional. Single-party rule may minimize or paper over these problems, but divided government exacerbates them. This is what we saw in the 2015 session and until such time as these three problems are addressed, Minnesota is in store for future failed legislative sessions.

David Schultz is a professor of political science at Hamline University in St. Paul.

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