Navigating the Minnesota Legislative Session in an Election Year

2020 is upon us, and in November, Minnesotans will be asked to vote in many critical races: United States President and Vice-President, the US Senate seat currently held by Sen. Tina Smith, all eight Minnesota Congressional seats, and all 201 Minnesota State Senate and State House seats. The ballot will also include judges, ballot measures, levy referenda and other items.

An upcoming election makes policy-making in the 2020 Minnesota legislative session a particularly tricky challenge. How does a business or nonprofit accomplish its policy goals and pass a bill in the midst of an environment in St. Paul that is extremely high in partisanship and tribalism?

Elections and sessions are both calendar-driven events, so it is instructive to understand how the dates of key events intersect to impact both processes (see graphic above). It is important to understand that several of the Minnesota election season’s most critical moments happen right in the middle of the legislative session. Legislators running for re-election will find themselves very busy at the Capitol at the exact same time that they are busy in their districts managing their party endorsement contests.

This overlap in legislative and electoral calendars can create a good deal of mischief at the Capitol. Leaders are keenly aware of their own caucus members who are vulnerable, and also of those members of the opposing party who have difficult elections ahead of them. Each party is vying to maintain or obtain political control, and will each employ various tactics to attack or defend members accordingly.

The parties consolidate around issues important to their respective bases in order to help their members in the endorsement process or to draw out their opponents’ positions on politically charged issues. Symbolic or “gotcha” votes are common. Floor debates are often more politically charged in hopes of generating content for political ads and attacks.

What can be done to manage the situation? Awareness and vigilance are half the battle. Consider your issues in that context. Could a vote on your issue be used against vulnerable members of one party or another? Could your issue get wrapped up in someone’s election fight? Might it be the subject of an ugly and public partisan debate in a committee or floor session?

It is vital to make strategic decisions informed by the challenges above. Passing laws is always difficult, but in an election year the room for error is smaller. We recommend the following to clients attempting to pass legislation:

Get started early (before session). The Governor, legislative leaders and committee chairs are already forming priorities and making deals.

Choose legislative sponsors wisely. The most notable and quotable members are not always the most effective, especially when focused on political rhetoric in an election year. Select a member on relevant committees who is well-respected on both sides of the aisle and has a reputation as a hard-worker. Also consider the legislator’s expected work-load and whether he/she has enough capacity.

Consider multiple bills as vehicles for your bill or provision. Depending on the subject area, it may be wise to push a bill as a standalone, and/or include language in one or more omnibus bills. The biennial budget passed in 2019 means state government is fully funded whether or not anything passes this year. For the most part, must-pass funding bills will be off the table. Therefore, investigate any germane legislation with momentum as a possible vehicle.

Don’t ignore politics. While a bill’s public policy merits may be high, do not forget the Capitol is a political place. Leaders, committee chairs and relevant members should know why passing the bill is a win. It could be for common reasons like energizing the political base or giving a new or vulnerable member a success on which they can campaign.

These are just a few of the many considerations those operating at the Capitol must make. The list is different for entities that are content with the status quo, or that wish to stop a bill from passing.

The bottom line is that success is hard won at the Capitol. Those who tend to succeed in an election year session are those who understand and account for its complex political ecosystem in their strategy. CRISTINE ALMEIDA

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