Lawmakers decide on billions in spending, shrouded in secrecy

By: and - June 1, 2021 6:01 am

Photo illustration by Getty Images.

In 2019, after Gov. Tim Walz had ensconced himself with House DFL and Senate GOP legislative leaders behind closed doors to hash out a budget, he told journalists he was frustrated with the lack of transparency into the backroom deals that have come to define the close of Minnesota legislative sessions.

Two years later, he said believes the private budget negotiations appear to be the best way to reach a deal. 

“We put out our budget,” he said recently. “You know where we stand… I would argue most of this is out there publicly. Some of this (private) negotiation back-and-forth and the discussion obviously to try and reach a place where people can speak freely does happen that way, but this is the way I think it’s supposed to go.”

Every two years, the budget debates that rage in public ultimately come down to just a handful of powerful people who typically work out how to spend billions of taxpayer dollars, leaving out of the process the public and even rank-and-file legislators who often are left to vote on budget bills with little input or much advance notice.

Walz, House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, and Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, earned a half-joking nickname in 2019: The Tribunal, which seemed to carry uncomfortable echoes of a Roman Triumvirate.

And the pandemic has reduced the transparency even more. The Capitol has been closed to the public, and in between official legislative sessions, lawmakers meet in ad hoc “working groups.” They do not hold public meetings even as they prepare large spending bills, a repeat of last year when they negotiated privately in advance of a handful of special sessions. 

This month, per a plan laid out by The Tribunal, lawmakers will return to approve a new two-year state budget, but the details are being finalized out of public view.

“I really feel like this session has been difficult enough with not being able to meet in person,” said State Sen. Karla Bigham, DFL-Cottage Grove. “This really took that even a step further from transparency. It’s concerning and I’m hopeful that chairs or leads of these working groups will somehow, someway, make it possible for some public viewing or testimony.”

Political scientists and legislative veterans say some of the opaque process stems from partisan polarization. A lack of trust makes negotiating more difficult, pushing the work to the last possible minute — or past the end of the constitutionally prescribed legislative session. Once the legislative session is over, the usual rules and procedures don’t apply, and legislative leaders can more or less do as they please. 

House Democrats say they’ve called for public hearings, but been rebuffed by Senate Republicans. Frustration over the process is bipartisan, however.

State Rep. Kristin Robbins, R-Maple Grove, said she is irked by the lack of communication during the process, saying it’s unclear who has even been appointed to the working groups and under what statutory authority.

“I’m trying to raise public awareness about the true process problems that I think really are detrimental,” she said, adding that she made note of the issues in her newsletter to constituents.

Sen. Tom Bakk, a Cook lawmaker since 1995 and Democrat-turned-independent, has been critical of the process. As a Senate Taxes Committee chair and then majority leader for four years, he was previously at the center of end-of-session negotiations. He says this session is like the 2019 session.

Bakk thinks it’s a mistake for leaders to be negotiating with the governor.

“We’re a coequal branch of government,” he said. “Frankly, I don’t blame Walz for it. I mean, good for him if he can get himself in the room and write the budget himself basically.”

On May 17, Walz and legislative leaders agreed to a $52 billion, two-year budget. Bakk said historically, committees meet in public and hash out a deal, and if the governor doesn’t like something, that’s addressed in conference committees.

“Surrendering this much authority to a governor is really problematic to the legislative branch,” he said. “Because as long as you let the governor in the room, he is never going to negotiate a deal by a certain date, no governor is going to.”

As Bakk explained, only the governor can call a special session of the Legislature, so when lawmakers are not in session, the governor has significant leverage. On the other hand, without a budget by June 30, Walz’s own executive branch will begin to shut down. 

Now that the Legislature has adjourned, lawmakers have scattered, committees disbanded, the public process has ended and “negotiations have all gone underground,” Bakk said.

David Schultz, a University of Minnesota law professor and Hamline University political science professor, said without public pressure, little will change. “You hear a little whining from lobbyists, but the general public just seems totally indifferent,” he said. “It’s become the new normal.”

Governors from Democrat Mark Dayton to Republican Tim Pawlenty have complained about the lack of transparency, but the secrecy surrounding negotiations has “gotten dramatically worse” in recent years, Schultz said.

In the 1990s, Minnesota led the nation on political and ethics reform, Schultz said. Minnesota was lauded for its transparency by groups like Common Cause, but the landscape changed about 20 years ago, he said.

The U.S. Supreme Court decided Bush vs. Gore, the 2002 Senate election ended in tragedy, the 2008 election in bitterness, and the extreme political polarization of national politics migrated to Minnesota.

Since then, the norm has been divided government, with control of the Legislature flipping back-and-forth. “In many ways we’re a microcosm of the politics nationally where the two parties are very far apart on a lot of issues,” Schultz said.

Minnesota is “incredibly unique” with more shutdowns and near-shutdowns than any state in the country, he said. That’s due in part to the fact that it’s the only divided Legislature in the country: Democrats control the House, Republicans control the Senate, and the governor is a Democrat.

“We’re actually a badly performing state government,” Schultz said.

How it’s done in other states

In ruby red North Dakota, legendary state capitol reporter Dale Wetzel (who now works for the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction) said the end-of-session protocol is not a perfect model of transparency, but he wouldn’t describe it as closed-door deal-making.

“The hinky stuff,” as he called sneaky legislative details that may help a powerful interest group, is usually done in conference committees, where amendments are presented and there’s some time to react to them. But those meetings are open to the public, with times announced in advance.

This pandemic year was the most transparent in state history, he said; North Dakotans could watch legislative hearings, floor sessions and conference committees on livestreams.

“We do not have situations where legislators are voting on measures they haven’t been able to read or become reasonably familiar with,” Wetzel said.

But no system is perfect, and this year several proposals were brought in without a public hearing, he said. A state employee pension bill blocking new employees from participating was passed without a hearing, he said. 

“I do believe there is still a culture in the North Dakota Legislature that frowns upon these types of hijinks, although they do happen on occasion,” Wetzel said.

In Nebraska, veteran capitol reporter Paul Hammel said it’s unusual, but not unheard of, for deals to be struck in the dark of night at the GOP-dominated unicameral Legislature.

Kathie Obradovich, editor of the Iowa Capital Dispatch, said budget negotiations aren’t transparent at all in Iowa. This session, Republicans — who have the majority in both chambers and the Republican governor — negotiated behind closed doors for several weeks to work out budget differences. 

She said the bills go through a public process, which is routinely circumvented on the floor with amendments that rewrite the bills. Some years, lawmakers roll bills together into a big budget omnibus, which is also typical in Minnesota and makes it hard for the public to scrutinize because they can run to several hundred pages. 

Rudi Keller, deputy editor of the Missouri Independent, said in Missouri — where the GOP has a supermajority in the general assembly and a Republican sits in the governor’s office — conference committees generally ratify behind-the-scenes negotiations. 

“This has generally been the pattern and I have been covering the budget here off and on for 35 years, under Democratic and Republican control,” Keller said.

With threat of primary looming, little incentive to compromise

When he was Senate majority leader, Bakk said lawmakers finished their work on time.

“Leaders can do that,” he said. “Leaders can get that done, but not if they hook themselves to the governor, because it’s not in the governor’s interest to get done.”

Bakk was business manager for a carpenters union on the Iron Range for 20 years, and acknowledged it’s difficult to negotiate in public. That’s why, he said, the Minnesota Legislature is mirroring Congress, where leaders negotiate a deal with the president and then Congress gets called in to vote on the deal.

“They’re gonna call us all in on the 14th to vote,” he said, referring to the deal to bring lawmakers back on June 14. “I mean, members aren’t going to know what’s in the bills.”

Retired Carleton College political science professor Steven Schier said because most legislative seats are safe — no more than 15 House seats and maybe eight Senate seats are competitive, by Schultz’s count — lawmakers have little incentive to compromise, which leads to the dead-of-night, closed-door hijinks.

“We’re producing a system where there are little incentives for political cooperation until the very last second and that’s what we’re seeing yet again,” Schultz said. “The message is if you do compromise, you’re gonna get primaried from the right or left.”

Bakk agrees that less ideological, “regular people,” as he calls them, need to get involved in the caucuses to nominate candidates.

Since the 1990s, Republicans have become more uniformly conservative and Democrats more uniformly liberal, Schier said, so the people who nominate candidates are more ideologically extreme and decide who gets in office. Local media plays up conflict and national media reinforces ideological convictions.

“They provide the matches and the gasoline and the activists put them together,” he said. “When you’re negotiating in public you’ve got these media sources that are fanning the conflict and then you have these activist groups that will pounce on you if you do something they don’t like.”

That’s an incentive for politicians not to be transparent about their negotiations, he said.

Ultimately, the public would have to engage to let light into the process. 

“At some point it’s gonna have to come down to the public,” Schultz said. “The public is gonna have to say this is not what they want.”

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Deena Winter
Deena Winter

Deena Winter has covered local and state government in four states over the past three decades, with stints at the Bismarck Tribune in North Dakota, as a correspondent for the Denver Post, city hall reporter in Lincoln, Nebraska, and regional editor for Southwest News in the western Minneapolis suburbs. Before joining the staff of the Reformer in 2021 she was a contributor to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. She and her husband have a daughter, son, and very grand child. In her spare time, she likes to play tennis, jog, garden and attempt to check out all the best restaurants in the metro area.

Ricardo Lopez
Ricardo Lopez

Ricardo Lopez is the senior political reporter for the Reformer. Ricardo is not new to Minnesota politics, previously reporting on the Dayton administration and statehouse for The Star Tribune from 2014 to 2017, and the Republican National Convention in 2016. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Los Angeles Times covering the California economy. He's a Las Vegas native who has adopted Minnesota as his home state. In his spare time, he likes to run, cook and volunteer with Save-a-Bull, a Minneapolis dog rescue group.