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< Caution: Commisisoner at work | Main | Beware the omnibus bill >

No fantasy: Minnesota has the most open legislature

Posted at 10:10 AM on February 8, 2007 by Bob Collins (2 Comments)

When I first moved from Massachusetts to Minnesota several governors ago, I knew I was going to a parallel universe. Minnesota and Massachusetts, it seems to me, are very much alike. They both are cold and snowy, there was a moderate Republican governor in a heavily Democratic state, politics was a passion of many people, they had a penchant for being on the losing side of some presidential blow-outs, both states have a dominant newspaper that Republicans think is operated by the Communist Party, and both states used to have professional basketball teams.

Even now, there are more similarities with a few twists. Massachusetts had a moderate Republican governor who is now running for president and trying to convince people he's a real conservative and Minnesota has a Republican governor who's running for vice president, the particular political stripes of whom have yet to stop moving long enough in my viewfinder to be photographed.

As I awoke this morning in the far end of the Bay State, however, an article in the local paper jolted my reality. Deval Patrick, the current governor, is apparently cutting a deal with the House Speaker and Senate President (the two positions that really run the state), in which Patrick agrees to pay raises for some lawmakers and their cronies in exchange for support for Patrick's campaign promise to "change the culture on Beacon Hill."

Irony, anyone?

A few weeks ago, when I was on the Fox & Friends show, one of the hosts in New York asked me, "could this work in other states." I hemmed and hawed for a second and then stammered that, "it could." But, of course, it can't.

Why? Because as much as we like to criticize it, Minnesota has -- and I'm speaking only on personal experience -- the most open government in the history of civilization. I'm sitting in Massachusetts this morning, watching the Legislature on a live Webcast. My inbox is full of notes that the report of the standing committees is available, that new bill filings are available, a details of everything that happened on the Senate floor lately. I can look up any bill and find out its status, its authors, and its content. I can use the legislative Web site (as well as MPR Votetracker) to send email to any legislator, and I can even find their home address and telephone number.

On Fridays, both the House and Senate publish exhaustive publications detailing the week in politics in their respective chambers that would make any big city newspaper publisher proud. I can send a note to a committee administrative assistant now for a breakdown of a vote, I can get it back in a couple of minutes. If I'm in Minnesota, I can turn on a TV anywhere, and see it all happening live. And, best of all, Minnesota has a law that says every bill has to be about one thing. Are you listening, Washington?

I can go to Minnesota Fantasy ,Legislature and look at the power rankings and see, not 6 or 7, but 201 engaged legislators working hard and -- from what I've seen -- on behalf of what they believe is in the best interest of Minnesota. Minnesota has one of the finest -- if not the finest -- Capitol press corps in the country. Massachusetts? It used to. Most of them are gone.

And I'm pretty sure if the governor is working on a backroom deal that will remain secret, it's probably with an old guy from Arizona. Or maybe not.

Don't get me wrong, I'm no pollyanna when it comes to politics or anything else. What's fascinating to me is that in Massachusetts, only the Red Sox outrank state politics as a spectator sport. But in Minnesota, with but a few rare exceptions on occasional issues -- stadiums, same-sex marriage -- the Legislature struggles to get on people's radar. There's a theory here, somewhere, and I wonder if it isn't that the more open the government, the less interested people are in it. I don't know if that's true, but it could be. It could be that if you know your government is open, you don't worry about it as much; you don't watch it as closely. And if you know your state government is corrupt, you pay more attention to it.

There's irony there somewhere too. Although I can't put my finger on exactly what it is.

Comments (2)

You know Bob you might be on to something.

The more open the government is the less the public worries about it. Once there attention has been on something else for so long it’s hard for them to go back and look at what the government has been up to.

Point in case in 2002 no one (very few people) cared about why the legislature overrode the then Governor’s veto for the budget, which should have been a very big deal. And in my opinion that is what leads to the short falls that had to be fixed the next 4 years. First, no one (again very few) questioned that the two people who orchestrated (leaders of legislature) that veto override were running for Governor themselves. Second, we were all too caught up in the celebrity of the current Governor and his (in some cases his family’s) outrageous behavior, distracted by something other than the open government. Till finally when the open government (legislature) said they would override the veto everyone said oh sure that wild Governor of ours didn’t know what he was doing.

Instead of looking at what was clear from our open government, the legislature was using billions of dollars in tobacco money (for health expenses) and other one time fixes.

By having the open government we maybe we don’t have the, might I say critical, cynical view of our elected officials that we should have.

My example does not have names (although you should know who they are) because I don’t find fault with any one person or group for this but just as a possible example of the theory on open government causing less public awareness.

Posted by Brian Hanf | February 8, 2007 1:38 PM

I agree with you, to an extent. But if you pay attention to the last few days of the session, when a vast number of decisions are made late at night by a very small number of negotiators, you'll see how not everything is as open and democratic as it seems during the rest of the law-making process.

To the extent that decisions are made in open committee hearings (which are very impressive, I'll readily admit), our state government does work very well, and very openly. It's just the deal-making at the last minute that I find depressing. There's no reason to have all the important bills get passed right before deadline other than that it gives lobbyists the opportunity to slip stuff into bills without proper hearings and debates.

Posted by Bill | February 9, 2007 2:50 PM