Dysfunction of national politics settling in Capitol in St. Paul

By : 
DAVID PHILLIPS
Reflections from my Notebook

The politics in St. Paul is looking more like the politics in Washington, D.C., which isn’t good for the reputation of Minnesota government or for any of its politicians. Our federal government is regarded as a swamp, something the current administration hasn’t changed despite the promise to drain it, and Congress has an approval rating of just 11 percent.

The approval rating of Minnesota politicians isn’t that low, but it is likely on the decline as partisanship, dysfunction and inaction become more entrenched in our system here. The legislative session recently concluded and with the governor’s veto of a massive budget bill, there is little to show for the three months legislators met in St. Paul.

Once again this year, nearly all the attempted action to get things done came down to the final days, even minutes, of the session. Lawmakers had just three-and-a-half hours to read the omnibus budget bill, which had 350,000 words on 990 pages of paper that weighed 11.5 pounds. The rush job on that major piece of legislation meant few people understood the bill or even knew exactly what was in it before casting a last-minute vote.

There is a political divide in the state with a DFL governor and Republican-controlled bodies of the Legislature, but Minnesota politicians in the past often bridged that divide to benefit the residents of the state. Today, the goal is more focused on finding ways to benefit the party as games and posturing take center stage at the Capitol.

Both sides said they did, or were willing to, compromise, but the definition of compromise has become so narrow that it loses meaning in the extreme partisanship taking over the state. Only token concessions are made with the focus on how that will play to voters in the next election.

Negotiations were done through threats, name-calling and press conferences rather than meaningful dialog in face-to-face meetings.

Another last-minute major piece of legislation was the tax conformity bill, which Gov. Mark Dayton also vetoed as it was very similar to one he had vetoed in the waning days of the session. This will have a more direct effect on every Minnesotan, although we won’t see exactly what that entails until we pay our income taxes in 2019.

Elected officials in both parties had hoped to bring the state tax code in line with the recently reformed federal tax code. Without tax conformity, our forms will be extremely complex since the state form has been based on the old federal tax code and officials couldn’t come up with a replacement structure that conforms to the new code.

A third major bill is still in limbo as the governor hasn’t signed it yet and the threat of veto still looms, but if the bonding bill does make it past the governor’s desk, it will be about the only accomplishment from this legislative session.

The vetoed budget and tax conformity bills weren’t the only items that were left undone, even if they drew the most attention at the end of the session.

There were hopes, even expectations, that our elected officials would address other important issues such as the opioid epidemic, distracted driving, gun violence, school safety and elder care abuse. Most of them had widespread bipartisan support among residents. Although powerful lobbyists are blamed for some of these failures, it still seems that dysfunctional politics is the main reason for inaction.

The irony is that the partisan one-upmanship is being done with an eye to the election this fall. Only members of one branch of state government will be in play on the ballot and those races will likely be overshadowed by ones that command the attention of national special interests.

Dayton won’t be running for governor as he already announced his decision to step down. State senators won’t be on the ballot at all.

That leaves representatives in the House who are up for election this fall. However, so are two U.S. senators, all U.S. representatives, several in congressional districts that have become more competitive as Minnesota appears to have turned more purple, and positions in every state constitutional office, which includes a wide open governor race.

Minnesotans are going to be inundated with political noise this fall, taking the spotlight off the intricacies of what happened, or, more precisely, what didn’t happen, in the most recent legislative session. The barrage of messages may just overwhelm voters enough that they tune out all the rhetoric.

Already, millions of dollars have been committed to advertising in Minnesota this fall even though the candidates haven’t been set in most races. With an open race for governor and a special election for the Minnesota Senate seat being filled by Tina Smith who was appointed just five months ago, national groups are targeting Minnesota. The First District is also being targeted by special interest groups since the incumbent DFL congressman is stepping down from a district that voted for President Donald Trump in 2016 and Barack Obama in 2012.

So watch out for the onslaught of messages this fall. Less and less may be getting done in St. Paul and Washington, D.C., these days, but it’s a good bet we’ll be hearing more than ever from our politicians as the election nears.