Who really runs the Minnesota Legislature?

Few probably expect much of the just-starting-up 90th session of the Minnesota Legislature, and this will tend to be blamed on the Governor being a Democrat while the House and Senate are both controlled by Republicans.  There will be, of course, some truth in this.  But how much?

If the House and Senate leadership and the governor were all DFL, would they be able to (or even want to):

  • Keep sulfide mining out of Minnesota
  • Prevent the expansion of frack sand mining in Minnesota.
  • Provide everybody in Minnesota access to health care.
  • Regulate electric and gas utilities to reverse ripoff rate increases (as wholesale energy prices decline, retail (residential) rates zoom upwards).
  • Get agricultural water pollution under control by regulating farmers.
  • Curtail the air pollution estimated by the MPCA to be sickening and killing large numbers of Minnesotans every year.
  • Make taxation more progressive and increase the minimum wage.
  • Curtail unjust home foreclosures, provide restitution, and reform scumbag banks such as Wells Fargo.
  • Provide reasonably-priced broadband access throughout Minnesota on an aggressive schedule.
  • Restore adequate funding of state parks.
  • Curtail the special interest control of regulatory agencies such as the MPUC and the MPCA, and refocus them on the public interest.
  • Take for-real measures to reverse Minnesota’s contribution to global climate change.
  • Strengthen access to government information (Data Practices Act)

Choose your own issues….

My take:  A DFL-controlled government might take baby steps on some of these issues, whereas Republicans, in general, will try to make things worse.  Neither party, if in control, would likely take strong, effective, actions on these or other issues.  Gridlock and special interest control would prevail regardless.

Why?

In a technical sense the Legislature has become more open.  With a computer and good Internet connection, it’s often possible to watch and hear what seems to be going on, as clearly as if one was in the Capitol building.  But in actual operation the Legislature remains inward-looking, isolated from the people, and overly responsive to lobbyists for industrial and commercial interests.  Only token public input is usually allowed, and that usually AFTER the deals have been cut; the decisions made.

The situation seems long-established, taken for granted, largely unchallenged, and not-much-mentioned in any media I see.

Agenda-setting events

As in, probably, every other state, special interests put on extensive dog-and-pony shows intended to lay out their agendas, portray these as inevitable, and diminish expectations for something better; to program the Legislature and the Governor … to have it their way.

Two of these agenda-setting events:

From “Environmental Initiative,” a front for polluting industries and regulatory agencies, came a “2017 Legislative preview.”

“Participants at the 16th annual legislative preview forum heard from legislative leaders about their environmental priorities for the 2017 session. Panelists explored a wide range of topics, including natural resource protection and funding, water, energy, climate mitigation, transportation, and more.”

Speakers:

  • Senator Scott Dibble (DFL), District 61
  • Representative Dan Fabian (R), District 01A
  • Representative Pat Garofalo (R), District 58B (via phone)
  • Representative Rick Hansen (DFL), District 52A
  • Representative Frank Hornstein (DFL), District 61A
  • Senator John Marty (DFL), District 66
  • Senator David J. Osmek (R), District 33
  • Representative Jason Rarick (R), District 11B
  • Representative Paul Torkelson (R), District 16B (via phone)
  • Representative Mark Uglem (R), District 36A

The event sponsors included many of Minnesota’s biggest industrial polluters and their lawyers and consultants:  Minnesota Power, Great River Energy, Minnesota Corn Growers Association, Wenck Associates (writes permits for polluters), Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, Dorsey & Whitney (represents the biggest industries in Minnesota), and so on.

Need we say there were no representatives of the public interest on the agenda or as sponsors?  In theory, members of the public could attend if they were willing to pay $60.00.  Did any of the attending legislators dissent from the polluters’ agenda, report back to their constituents, and seek their views?  Not that I have heard of.

Lets look at one more:

An email from House Public Information Services says “No legislative business is scheduled for Wednesday [Jan 4, 2017] due to a legislative policy conference at the University of Minnesota.”

So, the Legislature shut down for this event.   It must be important!   The first thing on sees at the conference web page is

“Conference is closed to the public”

University representatives did not seem very anxious to discuss this.

The conference web page has the same upper section that the legislature uses.  That surely give it an official coloration.  Some responses from the University:

“… the One Minnesota conference was not an official legislative event. It was a private educational conference, so open meeting rules did not apply. … If you have additional questions, here is the contact information for Susan Closemore who directs communications for Speaker of the House: …” (We did not hear back from Ms. Closemore.)

[Muller:] “I would like to know how the agenda was arranged and the participants chosen.  Can you enlighten me on that?”

“I am tied up and cannot call you today.”

“You are being sent to the Legislature’s Communications office because this event was paid for by private foundations to enable a policy seminar for legislators.” 

“I have facilitated it since it started in 2007.  The programming is non-partisan and reflects the interests of legislators.  There is no political agenda – it’s merely an opportunity to learn about policy facts.  Think of a classroom – that’s the idea.”
“Does this answer your questions?”

“Honestly, this is a very good thing to get back to the facts – something that a group of us have worked hard to create as a counter-weight to partisanship and special interests.”

But:  whose facts?  Lets take a look:  A 2017 panel:

Health care reform: New directions in Washington and Minnesota challenges
Joel Ario, Director, Manatt Health
Steve Gottwalt, Executive Director, Minnesota Rural Health Association
Brett Graham, Chief Strategy Officer, Leavitt Partners
Charlie Mandile, Executive Director, Health Finders Collaborative
Moderated by Prof. Larry Jacobs

Seemingly all health care industry people.  Any advocates for “single payer” or “medicare for all?” Or Minnesota Care for all?  Of course not.  Any consumers of health care?  Of course not.

Lets look at a mining panel from 2016:

Patrick Schoff, Professor, University of Minnesota Duluth
Rolf Weberg, Director, Natural Resources Research Institute (presentation)
Larry Kramka, Mining Services Director/Senior Environmental Project Manager, Houston Engineering

All mining people, of course.  Any opponents, say, of Polymet?   Of course not.  Take a look at the presentation linked above.

It looks like the main sponsors were the McKnight Foundation and the Blandin Foundation.  The (very industry influenced) Council of State Governments seems to be involved.  We got no real answers about how the agenda was established.

Lots of interests hold events and try to get legislators to hear their pitch.  But to shut down the Legislature for a whole day with the public excluded seems over the top.

Is this a huge scandal?  No.

More a sad story of political decay, an example of paternalistic political realities at odds with Minnesota’s self-image as progressive and democratic.  There are legislators–possibly a shrinking minority–who try to represent their constituents rather than special interests.   But overall, is it any wonder that many people feel pissed off and vote for candidates with bad values but at least some real entertainment value?  Thus, of course, leading to further political deterioration.

(The University of Minnesota, like any big university, is a very diverse entity and there is plenty of good as well as bad happening within it.)

In another post I will share some messages to “my” senators and representatives that they haven’t bothered to respond to.

 

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