Editorial: Legislature should do all its work in public
For 12 of the past 14 weeks, the Minnesota Legislature got high marks for operating in a way that was easy for the public to follow, if not always understand. Bills were posted in public. Hearings were well publicized and open to those who sought to observe or testify. Floor debates were visible in person or via broadcast.
All that changed at crunch time. Almost daily between May 4 and adjournment early Monday, legislative leaders marched into the office of Gov. Tim Pawlenty and closed the door. The most important decisions of the year were made in those meetings. Left out were members of the public, the media and most of the Legislature itself.
When new ideas came to the fore -- such as an exception to levy limits for cities with large numbers of homes in foreclosure -- no stakeholders were present to react. When those inside wanted input from outside, they called on those they wanted to hear. When participants emerged with complaints about their bargaining partners, those outside had no way of assessing the veracity of their charges.
Is this legal? Apparently so. (The Capitol press corps checked with the attorney general's office, along about 9:30 p.m. Saturday.) But closed sessions mock the spirit of openness that made Minnesota a leader in open-government requirements 35 years ago.
Is it new? Hardly. Governors and legislators have always huddled in private, especially when they have thorny budget differences to resolve. But this year the huddles consumed an inordinate amount of time, and encompassed an extraordinarily large share of the session's work. The talks went far beyond balancing the state budget, taking in transit projects, a Mall of America subsidy, health care reform and more.
The other new wrinkle is the capacity technology has created to strike a deal at 2 p.m. and put it in law a few hours later. A rule requiring bills to lie on the desk for 12 hours is waived at session's end -- just when it is needed the most. Sunday night's rush job left the public in the dust, and even some legislators wondering what they had approved.
House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher argues that closed doors can be necessary to get politicians past "positional bargaining" that hews too tightly to publicly stated positions. But it might be that if politicians knew they had to forge compromises in public, they would be less inclined to climb out on a policy limb in the first place. It might be that quicker, smoother negotiations would result, as Senate DFL leader Larry Pogemiller predicts. And it might well be that Minnesota would be better served by a Legislature that's truly open for business all session long.
- Minneapolis Star Tribune