Rep. Melissa Hortman (DFL-Brooklyn Park), minority leader in the House of Representatives, addressed the 2017 legislative session and fielded questions from constituents at a July 24 town hall session at the Brooklyn Park Library.
“This was a very different year for me because I ran for and was elected minority leader, and so my job was in part to represent our community but also in part to run the DFL House Caucus and represent our point of view in negotiations,” Hortman said. “So, that put me in sort of a different place—I’m usually very focused on Brooklyn Park and Coon Rapids and our school districts, but, for me, the larger discussion was … articulating more of a point of view of my party a little bit more than my community.
“As someone who really believes in bipartisanship, that was a little bit uncomfortable too,” Hortman added. “What I said to Speaker [Kurt] Daudt in the beginning and what I really held to all through was, anytime that we can be partners in moving the state of Minnesota forward, the DFL House Caucus is ready to be part of that.”
The session produced mixed results, she said. The $1.65 billion surplus was the result of prudent budget decisions in the past and a strong economy, according to Hortman.
“It should have been easy, I think, to divide up the $1.65 billion amongst the state’s priorities,” she said. “In Minnesota, we know people don’t move here because of the weather – that generally speaking is not the thing that draws people. What draws people to Minnesota is our highly educated workforce, our above average Fortune 500 companies per capita … and we’re productive.”
Much of the debate around dividing the surplus was related to spending on education and tax relief, according to Hortman.
“To me, it would have made sense to invest in K-12 education, make sure that none of our schools have to do deficit spending or engage in cutting,” she said. “I also thought it would have been a spectacular time to freeze college tuition—we could have frozen college tuition with about a $318 million investment in higher education.”
Hortman said she felt the state could afford a $300-400 million tax cut for the middle class while still freezing college tuition.
“I think that working families find it harder and harder to get ahead these days, and lowering taxes is certainly something you can do when you have a budget surplus,” she said.
Republicans in the Legislature wanted to spend the vast majority of the surplus on tax cuts, while Democrats and Gov. Mark Dayton wanted to spend the majority on education, Hortman said.
“The tax bill in the end was a little bigger than I think would have been fiscally responsible, about in the $600 million range, and the education spending was less than what I thought was ideal. We couldn’t freeze college tuition … and we didn’t give our K-12 system quite the resources it needs to avoid deficit spending,” Hortman said.
Hortman supported Sunday alcohol sales during the session, and followed suit at the town hall. “My husband would have stopped voting for me in the next election if I didn’t finally vote for sales of alcohol on Sundays,” she said.
The passing of Real ID was another significant aspect of the session. Hortman supported Dayton on the question of issuing driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants during the session. She said that people will drive regardless of whether they have a license or not, and without one, a driver cannot get insurance and will not get the driver safety training required for licensure.
“What we have is a significant public safety problem,” she said. “It’s about having safer roads.”
Hortman said the Legislature passed a good bonding bill this session, which included many rail safety projects.
The transportation bill was a short-term solution for funding, Hortman said. Transportation funding came from the general fund this session, rather than a dedicated transportation stream, she said.
Hortman said she was disappointed that the Legislature did not pass bills funding cyber-security efforts, as well as a bill that would keep internet service providers from selling search data.
Shutting down the state government is “the gun that has been on the budget negotiating table,” since 2011, Hortman said. “Before that, it wasn’t a regular part of budget negotiations that one party in the Legislature would threaten to shut down state government to get their way, but it has become a tactic that is used, I think unfair, outside the bounds of what we should do.”
“The governor so strongly recoils against that, like, why would you ever use state employees who have nothing to do with this process as pawns in a political dispute?” Hortman continued. “So, at the end of the day when Republicans walked away from the negotiating table and said, ‘We’re going to send you our last batch of bills and whether you like them or not, we’re going to be heading out of town,’ one of the things that the put in the bills, was is in the state government finance bill they said, ‘If you veto the tax cut bill,’ this gigantic almost unaffordable tax cut bill, ‘We will not fund the department of revenue.’”
In this context, while Hortman said that she did not expect the governor to veto budgets for the House of Representatives and Senate, she understands why he did it.
“What he did was, he took the gun off the table and he pointed it at the Republican leaders,” she said. “It was kind of a way of turning that tactic back on the [Republicans].”
The polarization of the culture at the Legislature is “the worst [she’s] ever seen it,” Hortman said. “It’s become so toxic that in the retiring room, we have two tables—and they used to just be two tables—but now one is the Republican table the Democratic table. It used to be when a Republican or a Democrat brought in cookies, they were just cookies for the House of Representatives. We have gotten to the point where there are Republican cookies and there are Democratic cookies.”
Campaign finance plays a role in the polarization of the two parties, Hortman said. “Since Citizens United has sort of unleashed these outside spending entities, candidates themselves have very little to say about what happens in elections,” Hortman said.