Schroeder, Horner: Minnesota’s special session — special for whom?

“The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.” This warning comes to mind as the Minnesota Legislature prepares for a special session with $1 billion still unallocated (with another $1 billion-plus in the reserve account), a-less-than-ideal location for legislators to meet and no public clarity on what issues the special session should address or, more importantly, where there is consensus on solutions.

Worst of all, the special session follows a regular session where transactional politics traded reforms and votes in a vulgar display of power, leaving the public in the dark or completely ignored.

Looking back, what did Minnesota get out of the partisanship, grandstanding, and deal making? Hard issues such as education, taxation, transportation and election reform were pushed to a special session or deferred until next year. We are skeptical that both political parties can come together next year during the shorter legislative session and when elected officials are thinking about their own re-election. But we also don’t hold out much hope for thoughtful policy emerging from a special session held in a contentious environment.

Clearly, the biggest loser in the 2015 session was our democracy. Issues that make public oversight difficult, such as the wording to amendments not being released in advance, bills that did not make legislative deadlines being brought back in omnibus bills, and the lack of clear, up-to-date online resources, were rampant and made it impossible to decipher what was really going on at the Capitol.

In fact, special sessions typically are unfriendly to public involvement and oversight almost by design. Gov. Mark Dayton has been meeting privately with a handful of legislative leaders, cutting deals on spending and policy issues that have enormous implications for the state’s direction. Only after these closed-door agreements have been reached will he call the Legislature into a one- or two-day session.

Minnesotans, including members of Common Cause, have strong feelings on the key issues that have been pushed to the special session. Sometimes intensity leads to gridlock, and Minnesota and the country have seen too much of that in recent years. But the answer isn’t to return to the days in which the political elite cut deals in a backroom. Rather, our suggestion is to use all the communications tools available today to engage Minnesotans in a conversation about our future. Let’s ask the major parties and the governor to put their proposals in clear terms and share them with the public. Yes, this might take us to November 2016 when the entire Legislature will face election. But wouldn’t it be refreshing if an election came down to big issues that had been debated by Minnesotans in town hall meetings, online forums and traditional media?

The warning from the founders of this country calls upon us to protect our democracy by holding our elected officials accountable. They wanted to protect this country from the rich and powerful using backroom deals for their own benefit, out of our sight. Without openness and transparency now, we will see a bad legislative session compounded with an inaccessible and closed-door special session.

We hope the governor and legislators will embrace the notion of engaging people in a thoughtful discussion about the big issues that will define the state’s future. And, we hope Minnesotans will call their elected state officials with a simple but compelling message: “Trust us.”

Jeremy Schroeder is executive director or Common Cause Minnesota. Tom Horner, the Independence Party-endorsed candidate for Minnesota governor in 2010, is a member of the Common Cause advisory board.

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