Here’s a way to save the legislative session

Published 9:05 am Monday, June 27, 2016

Minneapolis Star Tribune

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency

Discouraging words were the only ones heard from DFL Gov. Mark Dayton and GOP House Speaker Kurt Daudt last Tuesday after their latest private meeting supposedly leading to a special session of the Legislature. The two leaders emerged from their closed-door session complaining about each other’s unwillingness to strike a deal and casting themselves as “pessimistic” (that was Dayton) and “disappointed” (that was Daudt).

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Those responses are unfortunate, given how much benefit for Minnesotans is at stake in the 2016 Legislature’s unfinished business — and given the ingredients available for a bipartisan deal that would finish the job.

Reports of no progress notwithstanding, something potentially positive happened Tuesday. Daudt brought two more bargaining chips to the table — two items his House GOP majority wants added to a special-session agenda before acceding to Dayton’s demands. One, tax credits for private school tuition, is a nonstarter with DFLers (though a modest increase in a credit enacted in 1997 ought not be political poison). But the other — state pre-emption of local government authority to regulate private-sector employee compensation and benefits — seems to have considerable dealmaking potential.

Pre-emption moved to the top of the state business community’s legislative wish list last month when the Minneapolis City Council approved an ordinance requiring all employers of six or more people to provide those employees with paid sick leave. Employers complained — and the Star Tribune Editorial Board agreed — that Minneapolis overreached.

The Minneapolis move would impose an inflexible employee benefits rule — regardless of industry or profitability — but only within one city whose population comprises just 11 percent of the metropolitan area’s residents. Businesses voice justified concern that more Minnesota cities will get into the act, either with their own versions of the sick leave mandate or with other requirements for private-sector employment within their borders. Managing those variations could impose a burden on employers heavy enough to adversely affect hiring and business location decisions.

As if to underscore that point, a task force convened by the St. Paul City Council last week released its recommendations for a paid sick leave requirement. As businesses predicted, those recommendations do not match Minneapolis. One key difference: St. Paul is proposing to extend the mandate to all employers, not just those with six or more employees.

State elected officials — Republicans and DFLers alike — have good reason to resist this trend. Voters typically hold state officials accountable for Minnesota’s economic performance. And the state has long asserted its authority over matters such as the minimum wage, occupational safety and parenting leave. State officials should be loath to cede control of employment regulation to the state’s diverse and often competing municipalities. Like employers, state elected officials should value the uniformity and accountability that pre-emption would bring.

Pre-emption would not mean the end of efforts to secure more humane terms of employment for workers who lack access to paid leaves of absence. Those efforts are in full force at the Legislature. During this year’s session, the creation of a state-administered paid family leave program for this state’s midsize and large employers won state Senate approval; its advocates are certain to return in 2017.

If pre-emption is not enacted as part of a special session, its backers will also return next year. Indeed, the same can be said for most of the large volume of unfinished business the 2016 Legislature left behind — a fine tax bill that was so rushed that it contained an error that led to a veto; a bonding bill chock-full of needed public works, and a boost in funding for all the state’s transportation needs — roads, bridges and transit. Delaying action will only add to taxpayers’ costs in the long run.

Dayton often says that achieving bipartisan compromise requires “agreeing to things one does not agree with.” As long as Minnesota has divided state government — as it has for 24 of the past 26 years — that kind of hard-swallowing agreement will be what governing requires. Pre-emption seems like a GOP desire that DFLers could “agree to without agreeing with” in order to finally put a satisfactory coda on this biennium’s lawmaking cycle.