State leaders must make divided government work

Published 8:29 am Thursday, November 10, 2016

Minneapolis Star Tribune

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency

The nation’s Republican wave Tuesday washed over the Minnesota Legislature, where the House Republican majority of the past two years solidified and — barring a recount change — a new, very narrow GOP Senate majority emerged.

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But divided government — a nearly constant condition since 1990 — will persist at the State Capitol. Republican majorities in the next two years will share governing responsibilities with DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, just as they did in 2011-12, Dayton’s first two years as governor.

That history is not reassuring. The 2011 Legislature’s dispute with Dayton over how to balance a deficit-plagued state budget led to a highly disruptive three-week government shutdown, more borrowing from hard-pressed school districts and a downgrade in the state’s credit rating on Wall Street.

Divided government gave way to all-DFL control in 2013-14, then returned in 2015-16 with Republicans running the House, DFLers the Senate. Gridlock returned with the split. While the 2015-16 Legislature kept government operational and enacted welcome improvements in long-term care, mental health and early education funding, it failed to meaningfully address a number of Minnesota’s emerging problems and chronic needs. The inability to agree on more funding for transportation and public works ranks as a major blot on its record.

If more divided government in 2017-18 means more gridlock, Minnesota will suffer. More than many other Americans, Minnesotans rely on state-level government to meet shared needs, solve shared problems and set the table for future prosperity. Dayton and the new Republican majorities must strive for a new chapter in divided government’s long history. This time, they need to make it work.

Some Republican legislative leaders attributed their legislative gains to voter repudiation of Dayton’s policies. We find that claim overstated. As recently as late last month, a Survey USA poll showed Dayton with a healthy approval rating among Minnesota voters.

What’s more, the presidential race’s clamor distracted voters from consideration of many state-specific issues — but not all of them. The high cost of health insurance on the individual market is both a state and federal issue. It was almost certainly a factor in Republican legislative gains, particularly in rural regions with significant populations that buy health insurance on the individual market.

The affordability issue will provide an early test of the ability of Dayton and legislators — both those coming and going in this lame-duck season — to act in concert for Minnesotans’ benefit. A special session in coming weeks remains much in order to provide health insurance consumers assurance of relief from next year’s high premium costs.

Those newly entrusted with state lawmaking responsibilities can show that they are worthy of that trust by joining the calls for a special session and encouraging compromise — even, in some instances, working with the still-serving legislators they defeated in order to deliver prompt relief to overburdened insurance shoppers. Count us among the Minnesotans who crave an early sign that their state government can get past partisan paralysis and function in their interests.