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Kim Ukura: Special session and long-term reforms needed in Minnesota government

The past week, the 2016 Minnesota Legislative session came to a chaotic close. I'm sure most Minnesotans didn't watch and couldn't stomach the messy end to another legislative session.

The final work of the session — passing a bonding and transportation bill — was delayed until the last possible moment. House and Senate members received final copies of a bill developed in a closed conference committee with just an hour left to go in the session. While that's not ideal — an hour is hardly any time to review legislation of that length — it's also not unprecedented in the recent history of the Minnesota legislature

Although both bodies in the legislature had time to review the bill, it ultimately did not pass into law.

So what happened? As Don Davis, Forum News Service's capitol reporter, explained:

"Amid the confusion as the clock ticked to midnight, House Speaker Kurt Daudt and Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk apparently misunderstood whether their agreement included allowing Hennepin County to take on more debt to finance a passenger light rail line through the southwestern Twin Cities.

"Bakk, who said he thought he and Daudt agreed to the provision, allowed the bonding-transportation bill to be amended to include that. But the House went ahead and adjourned for the year, leaving the House and Senate with differing versions of the legislation minutes before midnight. The Senate could not remove the amendment by midnight and it, too, adjourned."

The impact of this inaction for Morris is significant. Without a bonding bill, Morris likely won't receive enough state funding to make funding a new water treatment plant workable.

This ending to the legislative session is both frustrating and disappointing. As a Minnesotan, I want our legislature to work better than this. As a resident of Morris, I want to know that there are provisions in place to help our city accomplish an expensive, mandated project that, by all accounts, local officials have approached responsibly and transparently.

So what's the solution? I have a couple of modest suggestions (building off and echoing what many other smarter people have already proposed).

In the short term, I urge Governor Dayton to call a brief special session so the agreed upon bonding and transportation bill can be passed. While it's disappointing we need a special session for this to happen, having the bill passed is vital for the city of Morris and beneficial for many residents across Minnesota. And the bill does appear to have bipartisan support — both versions passed with veto-proof majorities in their respective bodies.

At this point, Dayton is still considering this issue, including what requirements he might have for bills passed during a special session. I urge him to think quickly and, if he wants to make changes, keep them minimal. Residents can contact the governor's office by phone at 800-657-3717 or via email using a contact form on the governor's website, mn.gov/governor/contact-us/form/.

In the long term, I urge legislative leaders to heed House Minority Leader Paul Thissen's calls for more transparency in the legislative process. He and the House DFL caucus have suggested several useful reforms including a 24 hour public notice before the final vote on conference committee reports, more transparency for conference committees, more public participation and transparency for setting budget targets. Considering these changes is important.

When House Speaker Kurt Daudt visited Morris this week, he urged Minnesotans to ignore the "ugly" process for coming to an agreement on a bill, and instead look at the product of the bonding and transportation proposal that had been put together.

I have to disagree. While the outcome is certainly important, the way government comes to agreement is important too. We shouldn't be willing to ignore bad process in the long-term, even if in the short-term we're content with what has been developed.

As Minnesotans, we shouldn't accept the idea that last-minute maneuvering and votes with just minutes before a deadline represent good government. We should demand that agreements negotiated in private be given time for public scrutiny before they're voted on, and we should expect that the legislators who represent us will take the time to understand bills before they vote on them.

Once the dust settles on this session, I hope our elected leaders will do the work to make sure that government in Minnesota works well and continues to serve the citizens of the state.