A new legislative session is a renewed opportunity for Minnesota lawmakers to show the electeds in other states and in D.C. how it’s done — or how it should be done: with bipartisan cooperation and with a focus on what’s best for constituents rather than party priorities or personal political aspirations.
Not that St. Paul has been great of late in effective governing, which is all the more reason Minnesotans must continue to insist on it, recognizing that it would be far from the most surprising result in a session already being dubbed “unprecedented” and “unusual” by the media.
As KSTP-TV reported a day ahead of the session’s start this week, “A fence still surrounds the State Capitol building and no members of the public will be allowed inside, at least not during the early months of the session. All House and Senate hearings will be conducted virtually. Floor sessions will continue to be a hybrid of in-person and phone-in attendance from lawmakers around the state.”
Adding to the unusualness, while the Minnesota House remains controlled by DFLers and the state Senate by the GOP, the majorities tightened following the fall election, and “alliances with smaller caucuses could create new dynamics,” as Forum News Service’s Dana Ferguson reported Monday.
No political dynamic is newer to Minnesota than Iron Range Sens. Tom Bakk and David Tomassoni breaking away from the DFL to create a two-man Independent Caucus. Bakk said the split was an effort to lessen political divides in the Senate and boost civility, as Ferguson reported, both goals laudable.
“The political rhetoric has gotten so sharp and so nasty," Bakk said. "I’m hoping that this leads to a conversation about civility and can't we just find a way to work across the aisle, which would be in the best interest of the state, rather than just lobbing bombshells at each other.”
Amen to that, as against a backdrop of pandemic and political pageantry and peculiarity this year, the Minnesota Legislature has serious matters that demand attention and resolution.
Most pressing is the constitutional requirement for lawmakers to pass a two-year state budget, a task made all the more challenging by the pandemic’s economic devastation. What had been a $1.5 billion state budget surplus before COVID-19 is now a $2.4 billion deficit, a stunning swing into the red that occurred over only about two and a half months. It has to be accommodated before it can be reversed.
Among many other lesser issues, lawmakers also will be grappling this session with a COVID-19 vaccination rollout that isn’t happening quickly enough and with ongoing COVID-19 relief demands. Far too many Minnesotans and Minnesota businesses, especially small businesses, are barely hanging on through no fault of their own. And their COVID-caused struggles are exacerbating mental health, personal finance, domestic abuse, gun violence, and other woes.
Another potential oddity: though it’s not a traditional bonding year, at least one lawmaker has said she will push for a public investment package to counter these “extraordinary times and circumstances.”
“With incredibly low interest rates on bond sales, there has never been a more opportune time to invest,” newly elected Sen. Jen McEwen of Duluth said in a commentary she wrote for the News Tribune in late December. “Investments like these return the most economic stimulus per dollar, are shovel-ready, and will advance the future we all want to see for Minnesota — all while creating high-wage union jobs across our economy. We must invest in one another now to build a sustainable, prosperous, and just future.”
With actions in response to a reality that no one foresaw or wants, the state’s many challenges can be met in St. Paul. But not without individual commitments from each and every House member and senator, GOP and DFL alike, to work together like they’re supposed to, regardless of party, and with a focus on what’s best for Minnesotans of all income levels, party affiliations, races, and more.
Minnesotans can insist on it and should be able to expect it.