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Minnesota 2020 Journal: Redressing Grievances

July 26, 2013 By John R. Van Hecke, Executive Director & Fellow

The Minnesota State Capitol, like any aging building, needs a structural overhaul. And, it’s getting one but deconstructing the drama reveals a much deeper debate about Minnesota’s policy priorities. Conservatives, it turns out, want it both ways. They don’t want to spend money on the Capitol renovation and, if they must, they don’t want a renovated Capitol that readily and freely facilitates public assembly.

You’d think that renovating the Minnesota State Capitol would be a straight-forward proposition. It’s old. Parts are crumbling. Recapitalization is required. Yet, in conservative activist world, disintegrating government is the goal. A legislative leadership change was required to authorize greater project financing despite well-documented and wide-spread appreciation for the State Capitol building’s ill-health. I can only conclude that capitol restoration, extending the building’s working life for another 100 years and representing democratically-elected government’s role in Minnesota’s life, really sticks in the conservative craw.

Several days ago, the Capitol Preservation Commission authorized phase one of the $272 million renovation. Buried in the press coverage was State Senator Warren Limmer’s (R-Maple Grove) concern that the project wouldn’t adequately distance public demonstrations from policymakers. He went further, suggesting that public demonstrations be restricted to designated areas. “With the way this building is created, you cannot do business with a raging mob outside the door,” Limmer said.

Don’t you just hate it when, in a democracy, frustrated, powerless people freely and lawfully demonstrate in the seat of power?

It’s hard to work with thousands of chanting citizens, raising the roof. Legislating and governing is a messy process with no clear, predictable path to conflict resolution. Creating public policy, crafting a budget, authorizing financing and turning the whole proposal into law regularly puts people at loggerheads because people have different expectations and priorities. And, in a democracy, people expect to engage that process.

Suspicion of concentrated power has always been at the center of American democracy. Right from the beginning, Anti-Federalist concerns compelled creating the Bill of Rights, the Constitution’s first ten amendments. It enumerates specific, individual protections. The First Amendment addresses five concerns, bluntly noting that Americans have the right to freedom of religion, free speech, a free press, free assembly and petitioning government for redress of grievances. It’s these last two items that are at the heart of Senator Limmer’s frustration.

Conservatives, it seems, are only comfortable with conservative activists assembling and petitioning government. The annual Minnesota anti-tax rally, held on the State Capitol’s steps, is in conservative eyes for example, a legitimate expression of public discontent. Rallies demanding human rights, workers rights, increased educational funding and protecting Minnesota’s voting rights tradition are viewed, in conservative circles, as distractions from legislating. Following Senator Limmer’s suggestion, this type of disruptive demonstrating is best restricted to designated area within the greater Capitol complex. The subtext to this suggestion is that the further the zone is located from the Capitol Rotunda, the better.

The most recent Minnesota State Capitol mass demonstration centered on this past spring’s marriage equality bill, itself a response to a failed conservative constitutional amendment. Tens of thousands of people filled the Capitol’s corridors, supporting the law’s passage. Other states however, have experienced equally large demonstrations, protesting the removal of rights. The Texas legislature, despite public rallies, further restricted access to reproductive health. Wisconsin’s Capitol hosted mass demonstrations as the Governor and legislature passed deeply conservative fiscal policies.

Redressing grievances has a quaint, antiquarian ring. But, it’s in the Bill of Rights because of colonial experience with the British government. The Declaration of Independence, signed in 1776, barely gets into its second paragraph before citing unresolved conflicts with the Crown, offering that impasse as a rational for political separation. While marriage equality chants in Minnesota’s State Capitol halls may seem distant from a stuffy room in 18th century Philadelphia, the spirit is exactly the same. The people will not be ignored.

Government is a powerful force for good. We’ve lost of sight of that notion as conservative policy advocates advantage the wealthy few over the modest many. Spending less on public schools, affordable healthcare and jobs doesn’t make Minnesotans freer, it just makes the next generation’s prosperity that much harder to achieve.

Funding the Minnesota State Capitol’s renovation budget isn’t just a metaphorical fight, it is literal as well. Just as the Capitol is simultaneously practical and symbolic, so, too, is government. Minnesota invests in the things that are important, schools, healthcare, infrastructure and jobs. We know that smart, long-term investments yield growth, stability and prosperity. It’s good to remind ourselves of that even if elected policymakers prefer not to hear it.

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