Star Herald Editorial

Why do we fail to meet legislative deadlines?
Antiquated budget process and divided values may have something to do with it

Guest editorial

by David Schultz

A special session for the Minnesota State Legislature was entirely predictable. One could practically guarantee after the 2016 elections that with a Democratic governor and a Republican Legislature a special session was likely …

… It points to many underlying failures in the budget process in Minnesota — failures that have created what I have called for years the new normal.

Why yet again did the Legislature miss its deadline?

Budgets reflect values, priorities and political visions, and the process today reflects a changing political climate in the state that started about 20 years ago.

Minnesota is now a politically competitive and divided state … and the two major parties are polarized along issues ranging from health care to mass transportation, taxes, guns, abortion and preschool funding.

The two parties are equally divided in strength, making compromise difficult.

There is a collective interest in reaching political agreement in a timely fashion, but there is little individual incentive to compromise.

Among the 201 seats in the Minnesota Legislature, no more than about 15 to 20 in the House and perhaps a maximum of 10 in the Senate are from swing districts. The remainder is strongly Democratic or Republican, representing districts where legislators are elected to stand firm on their partisan views.

It is only those legislators who come from swing districts — those with a real chance to flip from one party to another — who have an incentive to compromise.

But the scarcity of swing seats means less pressure to compromise.

Combine this with strong party government in the state and even in those swing seats there is powerful pressure to vote straight party line.


Scarcity of compromise

There is also a leadership issue here. While party polarization may be strong, leadership is weak in the sense of preventing individual legislators from offering bills to appease interest groups or constituents.

Moreover, safe-seat legislators are less dependent on party leadership and can pursue or push special legislation, often without fear that leadership will punish them for it.

But finally, as I have argued for more than a decade, there is a structural problem with the budget process that reinforces the values and political polarization.

The budget process was designed when state government did far less than it does now, when budgets were a 10th or less of what they are now … when part-time farmer legislators could show up for a few months, vote yea and nay, and then go back and plant their crops.  

None of this reflects reality. Today’s budget process is complex, time consuming, and requires technical knowledge that is way beyond perhaps what we can expect of legislators, especially those first elected in November and then two months later asked to master state government and pass a budget.

Simply put, government may just be too complex to legislate and budget within the 120 constitutional day limit drawn up in a Norman Rockwell era.


Budget process flawed

Beyond human procrastination the budget timeline makes no sense.

Legislators take office in January, they wait a month for the governor’s budget, then they wait another month for the fiscal forecast.

Real budget work doesn’t even start until March — halfway through the session — and even then, until budget targets for the 10 omnibus bills are decided, few details can be worked out.

Over the years, half of the budget session has been wasted on passing bills to legalize Texas Hold’em card games or Sunday liquor sales.

Moreover, because the budget process is so decentralized, it is hard to control and discipline, and the collective disregard for the constitutional single-subject rule simply means that policy gets mixed into budgets.

The parties are obligated to cast their ideological votes to please their bases before they begin to think about compromising.

Budget process reform is imperative, including mandating automatic continuing resolutions to finance the government to avert shutdowns.

But structural reform will not address divided values and political incentives that encourage the two sides to fight and not compromise.

David Schultz is a Hamline professor of political science.

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