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Minnesota 2020 Journal: Take a Mulligan?

May 18, 2012 By John R. Van Hecke, Executive Director & Fellow

Minnesota’s 2012 legislative session was, in public policy terms, underwhelming. Maybe we should take a Mulligan, pretending that it didn’t happen and try it again.

Broadly, Minnesota’s legislature spent most of the session futzing with right-wing social-agenda items before finally and reluctantly tackling Minnesota’s pressing infrastructure needs. Even that was underwhelming.

Legislators added a second proposed constitutional amendment to this fall’s ballot. The first, passed last year, would ban gay marriage via constitutional prohibition making it somehow more illegal than the current state law making gay marriage illegal. This session’s amendment would restrict paths to voting, narrowing Minnesota’s successful voting tradition. Both of these proposals easily passed the conservative controlled state legislature. The process bypasses Governor Dayton’s engagement which is why they’re proposed constitutional amendments and not laws.

The legislature spent time considering several other conservative boilerplate ideas—Right to Work, Shoot First, and a number of union busting proposals. None manifested as constitutional amendments. Several were passed as bills but were vetoed by Governor Dayton.

That pretty much left capital investments, better known as the state bonding bill. Simultaneously, legislators worked on the Vikings stadium and State Capitol restoration financing. In varying fashions and to no one’s satisfaction, all passed. Using public revenue, Minnesota will build a professional football stadium; make fewer non-football stadium capital investments than we responsibly need; and, effectively, only made a down payment on the fixing up the deteriorating State Capitol.

With lots of right-wing agenda chasing and the low-end of capital investment commitments, you’d think that conservatives would be pleased with themselves and their elected officials. Nope. Conservative activists are in a punishing mood. They’ve saved their greatest ardor for their own.

Earlier this week, underscoring the feeling of betrayal and disappointment, conservatives in conservative State Senator Julianne Ortman's (R-Chanhassen) district blocked her Republican endorsement for re-election. Ortman chairs the Senate Tax Committee. In my mind, she’s a reliably conservative voice, actively working to advance the conservative public policy agenda. But, in the context of the right versus the extreme right divide, she’s apparently not conservative enough. Consequently, she’s seeking re-election without party endorsement. She’s not the first legislator to experience activist backlash and I suspect that she won’t be the last.

This action decreases rather than increases the odds of finding common public policy ground. The deeply conservative, reactionary, no-government-is-good-government crowd won’t truck with a lot of nonsense like supporting a bonding bill or voting for, you know, legislation that meets public needs.

By all reports, it was a tense convention. According to the Chanhassen Villager, one of Ortman’s party endorsement rivals said,“ It was a ‘stab in the back’ to conservatives that Republican majorities in the state House and Senate didn’t cut back more on spending.”

I can’t help but conclude that extreme conservative activists have lost touch with Minnesota’s reality. While Minnesota’s schools slip, roads deteriorate, healthcare costs skyrocket and job growth lackadaisically putters along, the conservative policy solution proposes investing even less in schools, transportation, healthcare and economic development. That solution may please the angry eight percent but it’s doing nothing for the rest of Minnesota.

Even as I express my disappointment in this legislative session’s outcome, I understand that right-wing conservatives will never be satisfied. Whatever moderates or progressives propose, conservative activists seek to stop or undermine it. Finding common ground with the nothing-not-now-not-ever crowd becomes a genuinely difficult undertaking.

This also doesn’t mean that progressives should sit back and chuckle at conservative dysfunction. It wasn’t a great legislative session. I don’t think that it was even a good session. I only know that conservative public policy dictates are derailing Minnesota.

If Minnesota’s policymakers focus on what really matters—strong schools, affordable healthcare, robust roads and bridges, and growing jobs—Minnesota moves forward. Physical and intellectual infrastructure create opportunity, grow communities and support families. Declining schools, crumbling roads, skyrocketing healthcare costs and low-wage jobs undermine Minnesota’s prosperity.

Minnesota still owes public schools more than $2 billion for unilateral funding shifts that held back education money so that the State could balance its budget. Legislative leaders could’ve worked to address this problem but they chose instead to attack teacher tenure rules and undermine local school board authority.

The same leaders could’ve bonded for an additional half billion dollars to recapitalize Minnesota’s aging roads and bridges, an investment that we’ll have to make sooner rather than later. Instead, they voted to put peace officers at greater risk by passing a Shoot First bill.

It’s unrealistic but maybe this is the moment to take a Mulligan. Let’s have a legislative session do-over, addressing Minnesota’s real needs. It’s not glamorous but it’s what’s needed.

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  • Sue B says:

    May 22, 2012 at 7:55 am

    Republicans have somehow let the radical, extremists of the Tea Party completely take over their party.  At first, by banding together, it seemed to be to their advantage, because they were able to gain majorities and control the committee chairmanships.  But, be careful what you wish for, because now, real Republicans have no place in their own party.  If they even try to work across the aisle to get things done, they face primary challenges, reduced campaign contributions, and practically have to ‘sell their soul to the devil’ just to get party endorsement. ‘Old style’ Republicans who are more like Arnie Carlson, Dave Durenburger, and many others, want to work for the people just like Democrats do.  They may disagree with the details of how to accomplish this, but are willing to compromise to get things done, not shut down the government. 

    If moderates can’t get these extremists out of their own party, they should break away and start a new “Independent” Republican party, or maybe even join the Democratic party, which is closer to their views than this current Tea Party version.  Without moderate Republicans, the small percentage of the state who actually agree with the Tea Party will fade into oblivion.  Maybe then we could have that ‘Mulligan’ and work to solve problems.