In our split Legislature, Senate GOP needs to open up the process
Republicans, the majority in the chamber, have failed to hold public hearings on several important bills, curtailing key input.
Minnesota is one of just two states in the country with a split legislature — one chamber led by a different political party than the other. While this can certainly be frustrating for the party in the minority in either chamber, the situation gives Minnesotans an opportunity to see stark differences in values between the House and Senate majorities.
The DFL majority in the Minnesota House is putting together budget bills, and this year they include provisions like paid family leave and a tuition freeze for state colleges and universities.
The Republican majority in the Senate has said “no” to most of the House proposals and is effectively cutting services in order to say they haven’t raised taxes.
None of this is surprising; it happens often in politics. What is surprising is the absolute refusal of the Senate Republican majority to open their process up to the public.
Anyone who has worked with me at the Minnesota Senate or House will tell you how important the integrity of the legislative process is to me. The process has rules and customs that might sometimes seem unnecessary, but they’re what ensure that the public can participate in representative government. The process is how legislators know whether their constituents support issues from education and health care to jobs and the environment. Most importantly, the process is a way we legislators are held accountable.
The Republican Senate majority has refused public hearings for several reasonable bills that support workers, improve education and increase access to health care throughout our state.
A bill — one that even has bipartisan authors — to help our schools move from the bottom of the list in student-to-counselor ratios is in the House budget and has not had a Senate public hearing.
Another bill to expand access to affordable health care with Gov. Tim Walz’s ONECare plan has passed three House committees and is included in their budget but has not been heard in the Senate.
A bill that would update the definition of sexual harassment and make workplaces safer passed the House 113-10 — and even a bill to ban child marriage in this state that passed the House with unanimous support — have not been heard in the Senate.
The bills getting the most coverage in the press this year are the gun safety bills, particularly extreme-risk protection orders and expanding background checks. I’m no stranger to the gun debate — I was endorsed by the NRA in a DFL primary among 11 other candidates the first time I ran for the House. I broke with the NRA on the “castle doctrine” bill in 2011. I’ve supported conceal-and-carry legislation. I voted for or against those bills after hearing from my constituents and advocates and balancing their insights with my conscience and my own life experience.
I support the Senate considering gun safety measures. Mandatory lost or stolen weapon reporting and the Taylor Hayden Gun Violence Prevention Act both make sense to me. There’s compromise to be made between gun owners and gun safety advocates on gun-related bills, but we can’t get there if both sides aren’t even at the same table.
Not having public hearings on bills isn’t just partisan politics as usual. The Senate Republicans are cutting out an important part of the process legislators use: the thoughtful consideration that helps us determine how to vote. Not having public hearings means no state senator has had the chance to hear from the citizens of Minnesota on important issues in a public setting. It means when we get to the end of the legislative session, negotiators from the Senate are coming to the table with an incomplete understanding of the public’s perspective. That’s just not how this is supposed to work.
We need to come together as advocates, organizations and legislators to find solutions to the challenges our state faces, and the only way we can do that is by including the public in this process. It won’t work any other way.
Minnesota Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, wrote this exclusively for the Star Tribune. First published on April 10, 2019.