The first session of the new legislature with DFL majorities opens tomorrow. Anyone following the coverage and commentary sees the media and DFL legislators fretting about being accused of overreach if they do what they were elected to do. My choice of the word “fretting” might imply I don’t take those concerns seriously, and, well, that’s mostly right. Too many have it in their heads that the reason the GOP majorities were so short-lived was that they overreached. “Overreached” implies that the voters liked the GOP agenda, but just wanted a bit less of it. However, the GOP agenda was pretty thoroughly rejected — there’s no other way to read it when it lasts just two years and the voters could have blamed the DFL governor, but chose instead to give him a friendly legislature. That message wasn’t, “You overreached.” It was, “Please go away.”
Yes DFL legislators, you have a mandate to do certain things, and failure to do what you were elected to do is far riskier to your majority than success.
What exactly is in your mandate?
Let’s think back to 2010. Gov. Dayton became governor in defiance of the red wave while running on the most non-Republican theme possible, taxing rich people. He repeated this in every debate and stump speech. I have difficulty believing anybody voted for him without knowing this was what he planned. He can’t be blamed for being unable to get a tax increase through the Republican legislature, but now there’s no excuse. Remember legislators that the governor is up for reelection next year, and he’ll look ineffective if he can’t get an upper income tax increase when his party has both houses. Do you really want to put the governorship at such risk? Do you want to take the chance that the gravity of a governor going down might pull legislators down too?
Try to remember the old saying, “good policy is good politics”. The state’s tax burden is heaviest at the bottom and lightest at the top. The school shift has to be repaid even if nothing is accomplished more broadly in fixing school funding. Turning the tobacco endowment into tobacco bonds was not only foolish, but one time only. There will be no avoiding massive budget cuts targeting the state’s vulnerable people without raising taxes at the top. So doing what the governor got elected saying he would do good policy isn’t merely good politics and good policy, it’s math.
Speaking of school funding, if there is one issue lots of legislators ran on, it’s the damage the MNGOP did to the finances of our public schools. It’s a big project, and probably can’t get done just this session, but will need next session too. That’s fine. This is a popular issue. Getting it finished next year is conveniently closer to election day. Again, good policy is good politics.
Of course, if the base has to push DFL legislators to get school financing fixed, we have huge problems. It looks like the one thing where we won’t have to persuade DFL legislators they have a mandate. It’s not like what looks like the scariest issue, marriage equality. At least it seems this is what legislators find scariest.
Yet there is clear mandate and opportunity here. Don’t conflate the marriage and photo ID amendments. The photo ID amendment was about putting the policy into the constitution, but the marriage debate was about the core issue itself. And we won. Yes I know, the vast majority of counties voted for the amendment, but we don’t count counties. We count people. Now it’s time to make more people count equally under the law. If you’re scared of blowback, repeal the marriage ban early. There are almost two years before election day. If you’re worried about being attacked for working on this instead of the budget, then repeal it right away before you get deep into the budget. We all know there’s only so much you can do on the budget until February at the earliest.
I make a request too of supporters of marriage equality. Tell nervous legislators that you will make a commitment to show up for their phonebanks and doorknocks during the next campaign if they will do the right thing. The anti-amendment group, Minnesotans United for All Families, hasn’t folded up. Tell them you’ll help them help legislators who vote to repeal the ban. Tell your own legislators. Tell the caucus leaders. Tell the skittish-sounding legislators. If, however, your plan is to vote, and … well, that’s all, then you’re not helping.
Regarding the other amendment victory, the voters’ opposition to photo ID for voting is less clear. Though most of the debate was about how lousy an idea photo ID is in policy terms, there’s no question some voters objected to putting it in the constitution, but might have been open to a statute. Now that there’s a DFL majority, there’s a chance to put the issue to bed. During the debate in the legislature last session, Sec. of State Mark Ritchie offered the Republicans support for electronic poll books, which avoid the disenfranchisement problem by putting the burden of supplying a photo on the state instead of the voter. Obviously for Republicans, disenfranchisement is a feature rather than a bug, but nonetheless, the electronic poll books could work politically by not only avoiding disenfranchisement, but by assuaging the concerns of people who think photos are foolproof security. Everyone but the tiny minority at Minnesota Majority will be happy. In terms of cost, some local election officials endorsed the electronic poll books on the grounds they would save money in terms of clerical work.
That’s just photo ID. There was a broader discussion of voting rights and election procedures that opened up an opportunity to deal with the only thing resembling real election fraud, illegal voting and registering by former felons whose rights weren’t yet restored. These are an infinitesimal percentage of all votes, but almost 100% of the illegal votes. So clear it up with a straightforward standard used by some other states: if you’re out of jail, you can vote. Simple to understand, simple to enforce. Moreover, though the number of illegal votes is tiny, we have no idea how many legitimate voters stay away because they think a felony record means they can never vote again — a common misunderstanding most canvassers have likely run into — or they just aren’t clear on when they can vote and don’t want to risk going back to jail. Simplifying the standard would not only end all known voter fraud, but would expand voting rights.
When should they vote? How about voting early, and letting us non-felons vote early too? It works in other states. The only substantive argument I’ve heard against it is the difficult situation caused when Paul Wellstone died right before the election, after a lot of absentee voters had already voted. We should have found something better than an ad hoc fix to it anyway, and maybe making early voting work will force us to find a solution. It’s probably not the last time a candidate will die after absentee or early ballots have already come in. Might was well just figure it out. Absentee voting has been increasing as voters use it like early voting, so early voting doesn’t actually create a problem.
Now think about how long you get to keep this DFL legislature with a DFL governor. Two years. Yes, fear of losing that is what’s driving some of you besides concern for your own seats, but really, the governorship and House could be lost in the next election. You know for sure you can do what you were elected to do only for the next two years. That’s regardless of which risks you choose to take. You know how angry some Republicans are about the things they didn’t get done when they had the chance? Don’t let that happen to you. Strike while the iron is hot.
So DFL legislators, imagine that you and the governor can run for reelection in 2014 by saying:
We balanced the budget by making the richest pay their fair share instead of creating more hardship for the most vulnerable;
We fixed school funding to avoid accounting shifts and making the schools involuntary lenders to the state, let the schools predict their funding, and keep the burden on the state so all our children get an equal chance at a good education;
We stopped the state from deciding when two consenting adults can get married, and made all married people equal under the law;
We ended the only real fraud in our elections, expanded voting rights, and improved election procedures.
Sounds like a winner to me.