The bad government of the MN Legislature’s final hours

If ever there was a lab rat to experiment with bad government, the final days of a Minnesota legislative session is it.

In the rush to get the things done that they should’ve gotten done in the many months they were given, lawmakers often pass bills they haven’t read and have no idea what their impact will be. Sometimes they do and pass them anyway.

A few years ago, you’ll recall, lawmakers voted for a ginormous human services bill that contained a change preventing child protection agencies from using prior reports of maltreatment when considering a case. It’s how a 4-year-old ended up beaten to death in Pope County.

Whoops.

Now, former state senator Steve Morse, now the executive director of the Minnesota Environmental Partnership; and David Carlson, president of the Minnesota Outdoor Heritage Alliance, are blowing the whistle on what they say is a “raid” on the Environmental and Natural Resources Trust Fund.

That’s the pool of money from lottery sales that is set aside for “air, water, land, fish, wildlife, and other natural resources.” Seventy-seven percent of Minnesota voters approved of the constitutional amendment in 1988.

On the last day of the legislative session, they write in an op-ed in today’s Star Tribune, lawmakers grabbed about $8 million of it each year for the next 20 years — an eighth of what’s in the pot — to pay off debt incurred for sewage treatment plants and trail projects, allowing lawmakers to claim a cap on a bonding package that was, basically, a lie.

No testimony was taken. The raid happened in the last hour of the legislative session, they write.

The bill didn’t reappear until the last hour of the session, when it quickly passed. In the midst of voting on thousands of pages of other legislation, many legislators didn’t know — and couldn’t know — what was in this bill or have time to weigh its implications or insist on changes. Many reluctantly voted yes, not wanting to scrap a bonding bill that funded important projects across the state.

But beyond the pressure-cooker of the end of session, we can see the damage done to the Trust Fund and the public trust. We can’t brush off this raid as a one-time event. If it is allowed to stand, the floodgates could open. Further raids are possible on this and other constitutionally dedicated funds, as soon as another legislator is looking for a new funding source.

The trust wasn’t designed to cover core functions of government, nor can it do so. This is why the enabling law for the constitutional amendment specifically prohibited these kinds of projects from being funded by the trust.

“The intent of the voters was to dedicate a long-term source of funding to protect, conserve, preserve and enhance Minnesota’s ‘air, water, land, fish, wildlife, and other natural resources’ for the benefit of all Minnesotans. I regret that I am unable to erase the dangerous policy language included in this bill that, if continued, would drain resources from this Fund,” Gov. Dayton wrote in a letter to legislative leaders when he was forced to sign the bonding bill after the session ended.

It’s been a fairly common practice over the years as legislators play a budgeting shell game. The Pawlenty administration and legislative allies regularly raided the Health Care Access Fund — money paid by a tax on health care providers that was intended to provide health care access — to repair giant holes in state finances they were unwilling to close with tougher choices.

Morse and Carlson acknowledge the legislators may have had little choice, being “boxed in” by time constraints and all. But those are constraints that are annually self-inflicted.

They’re calling for the divided Legislature — Democrats control the House and Republicans have the Senate — to undo the raid and see to it that the fund’s purpose remains intact.

Last month, the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy and several other groups sued the state, arguing that it’s unconstitutional to use constitutionally dedicated money to fund debt on projects it was never intended to fund. They also argue the raid sets a precedent for targeting other constitutionally dedicated funds — the arts and outdoors money, for example.

The lawmakers who engineered the raid — DFLers and GOPers alike — defend their actions with a version of of “Six Degrees of the Environment” in which just about any project can somehow be connected to “air, water, land, fish, wildlife, and other natural resources.” .

On a larger scale, the complaints of the environmental groups highlight a greater need for institutional reform to close the sneaky, last-minute deal-making that is the hallmark of bad governing.

  • MrE85

    This is sewer politics, literally.

  • Erick

    “The lawmakers who engineered the raid — DFLers and GOPers alike — defend their actions…” Who are these unnamed lawmakers? They need to be held accountable.

    • Follow the links, particularly the MinnPost articles. They’re in there.

      • MrE85

        As quality coverage of state government has declined (I’m looking at you, Pioneer Press), I’m glad MinnPost and MPR have stepped up their game.

        • Both of these independent news sources are well worth our support.

          • MrE85

            I agree 100%. I’m a supporting member of both.

  • wjc

    We all see what a mess those closing session days are, but how do you fix it if the government is divided by party? It seems that the impending session end is the only pressure that seems to matter.

    The next session will be interesting. The one-vote GOP majority in the Senate will give them the ability to block just about anything. I don’t expect the session to end any more gracefully than usual.

    Unicameral, anybody? Earlier deadlines for final passage based on the committee that brings a bill to the floor? Get rid of the arbitrary session dates and make the legislature a full-time gig (New session starts every January, and runs until election day (no lame-duck session. No campaigning for incumbents if budget bills aren’t complete.)? Change government shut-down rules, by allowing automatic budget extensions if new budgets have not been passed?

    Ideas?

    • Get rid of omnibus bills.

      • wjc

        I like that.

      • Getting rid of omnibus bills is a better solution than a granular line-item veto, due to the time constraints at the end of the session, which can make it problematic for the governor’s staff to get through these giant piles of verbiage before the deadline.

        • wjc

          Yeah, not a fan of the line-item veto. It essentially gives the governor legislative powers, which isn’t the right constitutional solution, in my opinion. The governor should be able to veto the whole thing, but that can be very hard when confronted with the omnibus bills.

        • Jim in RF

          In this case, at least, he knew what he was signing. He made a stink about being between a rock and a hard place, but he knowingly signed it.

          • He didn’t have any choice. THAT’s the game. It’s an all or nothing bonding package and the legislature had already adjourned. It’s “chicken” politics as usual. He called the legislature out.

            Good. Someone has to.

      • wjc

        Would banning the omnibus bills create more contention over smaller issues over a wider number of bills? Could you have omnibus, non-controversial bills where a majority of both parties have to agree to what gets included? If they don’t agree on its inclusion, a specific bill has to progress on its own.

      • Jeff

        I thought they aren’t allowed according the State Constitution? Bills have to be single purpose. But for some reason it’s never enforced.

        • davidz

          Various lawsuits have tried to stop this, but the problem is that the courts haven’t found that anyone has standing. No one has been harmed by this. Jane or John Citizen cannot show harm. Jane or John legislator can’t show harm. So even though it’s a violation of the State Constitution, there doesn’t seem to be any remedy for this.

          The Legislature could stop passing such bills as soon as it decides it’s important to stop doing so. But it’s a successful political tactic used by both sides to lump everything together into must-pass bills.

      • Gary F

        yup

    • jon

      Bad government is a bipartisan issue.

      Honestly a split congress might correct this particular issue than cause more harm… if you can’t count on the other chamber to pass what you pass because they are controlled by different party interests maybe you give a little more time for reconciliation?

      Or maybe you sit on everything to the last minute and pass bills that you know they won’t have time to read and hope they pass them too because they are under the wire also… knowing they’ll do the same to you…

      • wjc

        I agree that the Legislature’s issues are bipartisan depending on who is in the majority and how the minority party wants to gum up the works. You have just outlined basically what is happening now, which causes the logjams at the ends of sessions. The parties don’t seem to be able to do the “more time for reconciliation” thing.

        • I haven’t seen a legislature in the 26 years I’ve been here that didn’t play chicken with the end of the legislative session. Or didn’t try to hide votes with the committees in which voice votes are taken on bills “for possible inclusion in omnibus bill”, at which time it’s impossible to track them. Maybe they show up in an omnibus bill at 11 pm on the last night of session, maybe they don’t. That’s all decided in the backroom. It’s ugly and borderline corrupt.

          • >>Or didn’t try to hide votes with the committees in which voice votes are taken on bills<<

            Perhaps going "on the record" for these committee vote might alleviate a bit of this backroom maneuvering.

      • theoacme

        Given the funding raid in question, and the corporate concubinage of both the GOP and DFL, it’s not bipartisan, since both parties support the plutocrats and corporations over we, the natural-born taxpaying people…

        …banning both the GOP and DFL, and reversing Citizens United, is necessary for the United States to stop being a corporate fascist nation…

        …but it’s far more likely that the DFL and GOP will make it treason to oppose either, or both, parties, with a mandatory death sentence by public lynching for violations.

    • lindblomeagles

      This is probably too “pie in the sky,” but, what if by law a Special Counsel or Committee, made up of the Governor, the Senate Majority and Minority Leader, and the House Majority and Minority leader, were compelled by State Constitutional Law to meet for a period of 3 – 5 months after the end of each Legislative Session to review and amend all of the bills signed on the last day of the Legislative Session? Simple majority, best 3 out of 5 wins, and the Council or Committee is open to the public. This way, what’s in the bills become public, whose responsible becomes known, and the bills are edited for the last time before going into law.

      • wjc

        Interesting, but I would imagine that it would require a constitutional amendment.

  • Guest

    Some bills are PLANNED for the last hour because the authors know they stink and want to get it stuffed into the cracks……sigh

  • Guest

    All power is in the conference committee. IF we had only a house or a senate (unicameral) and enforced one-bill-one-topic we would have better laws.

  • Doing the exact wrong thing – going into a session with tax cuts as the main objective – fails time and again because the stuff we need costs money. While an argument can be made about the details of what is essential, Minnesota really does need to fund its services and infrastructure responsibly, and that means not playing budget games and pushing either debt or environmental damage into the future for someone else to pay for.

  • Gary F

    Last minute politics. The politicians and media have no time to look into the details.
    That’s how more gun control and the gas tax will be passed this spring. Count on it.

    • The original concealed carry in ’03, as i recall, was tucked into an omnibus bill on natural resources at the last minute. An abortion waiting period was a late substitution in a circus regulation bill. It’s insane. Too many things that can’t pass on their own end up in omnibus bills.

      That gives politicians deniability. “I didn’t want to vote for THAT, but without it, we wouldn’t have the things in the bill I wanted to pass.”

      • Gary F

        Yup, both sides use it.

    • wjc

      It’s our jobs to call BS on both parties when this stuff goes on, not just when it cuts against us.

    • Rob

      I don’t know about you, but if the state starts shoring up and improving its infrastructure because it’s raising money through a higher gas tax, I say rock on.

  • Tyler

    That trust fund was an awful idea and I can’t believe this state was dumb enough to fall for it. Sure, on paper it’s a nice idea, but in reality, a *constitutional tax* that creates a permanent slush fund…of COURSE politicians are going to show up with buckets.