In final days, Minnesota’s government again shows why it doesn’t work

Bob Collins | MPR News

We have reached the stage of the Minnesota Legislature’s annual session when it is forced to cram its work into the last few days, creating the illusion that it is working. It’s not.

Since Feb. 20, hours of media coverage have been spent on the lawmakers who have, again, wasted the time they were given for considered discussion of important issues.

Gov. Mark Dayton, too, invoked the sense of crisis when he waited until this week to declare an emergency exists in the state’s school districts, asking the Legislature for help, a request that likely could have come sooner even if it might not have been the strategic move of timing that the governor was invoking.

Invigorating debates on important issues will have to wait, the legislators say, because there just isn’t time to have them. Why is that?

Pick an issue — any issue — and you’ll find a frustrated public that can’t figure out how lawmakers can cash their paychecks and still have mirrors in their homes.

“I am angry,” Vijay Dixit, who lost a daughter in a distracted driving crash in 2007, tells the Star Tribune about a bill that can’t get out of committee. “Here is a chance to do something with good sense, good governance and do what is right. This is very annoying.”

Efforts to do something about the carnage on the roads have stalled in the Legislature for the last few years, and yet many people thought this was the year there could be a public policy debate on the issue.

Suckers.

“We’re trying to decide if it’s the right thing in the days we have left,” Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa.

And that’s the key phrase “in the days we have left.” The bill is likely dead as stand-alone legislation because legislative leaders maneuvered it down the calendar where it could not compete with “more important” issues that have also been ignored on purpose. It could still surface in the middle of the night, snuck into a public safety bill.

“It’s frustrating because I don’t know what the opposition is,” Greg Tikalsky, of New Prague, tells the Strib. He lost his father to distracted driving in 2015. “Until they are personally affected, they won’t listen. I don’t wish that upon anybody.”

So far this session, Dayton has signed only a handful of bills, including legislation providing money for the Legislature to operate, new contracts for state worker, and restricting animals that can be considered service animals. The latter took only 10 days to speed through the Legislature. [Update: Four bills were signed today: Designating a section of U.S. Highway 12 within the city limits of Wayzata, Minnesota as “Officer Bill Mathews Memorial Highway”, modifying the Safe at Home program requirements to allow participants who fear for their safety to maintain a confidential address, regulating credit unions, and providing asset protection for health savings and medical savings accounts.]

The problem here should be obvious. Floor debates will be compressed into the final days, occur when normal people can’t pay attention, and focus on legislation whose unintended consequences can’t be realized nor considered and debated in the rush to finish before a constitutional deadline.

Four years ago, the Minnesota Legislature was in the same position when it quickly passed a law which prevented child protection agencies from using prior reports of maltreatment of children when deciding on social services.

That’s how 4-year-old Eric Dean ended up dead in Pope County because of the change in how child abuse reports are handled.

The DFLer who sponsored an omnibus bill — a stew of bills that were thrown into a larger pot in the last days of the session — said lawmakers intended to do the opposite of what the provisions actually did.

Frustrated bill sponsors, who got a 45-percent pay raise last year, will try the same tactic in the next couple of weeks, jamming their legislation into omnibus bills as amendments, none of them getting the considered debate and public airing they deserve.