ST. PAUL — Is the Minnesota Legislature serious about giving the public more insight into how lawmakers decide how to spend their tax money?

State Rep. Gene Pelowski hopes so. The Winona Democrat is leading a House special committee while the Legislature is out of session to explore ways to make lawmakers’ work more transparent to the public.

The set of hearings comes after a notably secretive and messy end to the last legislative session in May. Lawmakers needed overtime to complete their work and even then much of the final decision making about how to spend nearly $50 billion in taxpayer money over the next two years was done behind closed doors.

“There’s no easy fix for this,” Pelowski said Wednesday, July 10, at the opening of his committee’s first hearing this summer. “It took us a while to get here, it will take us a while to get out.”

Values tug of war

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To start their discussion, lawmakers got an overview from staffers on the complexities of the state’s budgeting process. It includes a morass of procedures, hearings and deadlines that go into crafting a two-year spending plan for the state’s different agencies.

Patrick McCormack, director of House research, said lawmakers’ end goals are accuracy, efficiency, transparency and a budget that wins broad support. But there’s always a “tug-of-war” between those “core values,” he noted.

Increasingly, transparency has fallen by the wayside.

Republican and Democratic leaders started the year promising a more open and transparent budgeting process. They set early deadlines for passing legislation and vowed the public would have a say before the final budget bills were agreed upon.

That didn’t really happen.

New deadlines did little to expedite the process and in the end, Democratic House Speaker Melissa Hortman, Republican Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka and Democratic Gov. Tim Walz brokered the deal behind closed doors.

Afterward, the leaders said that negotiating in public was unproductive. To get an agreement, they needed privacy to work through the give-and-take of negotiations without rank and file members and special interest groups getting riled up.

Nevertheless, even after they reached a broad agreement, a panel that lawmakers, lobbyists and reporters dubbed the “tribunal” was needed to settle smaller disputes over policy and spending.

Resistance to change

Professor David Schultz, who teaches political science at Hamline University in St. Paul and has been studying Minnesota government for 25 years, doesn’t think much of that is going to change anytime soon.

“I haven’t seen an appetite for structural change in Minnesota government in a quarter of a century,” he said.

Schultz doesn’t doubt the convictions of Pelowski and others calling for reform. He just doesn’t think leadership will agree to any — doing so would take bipartisan compromise and the blessing of the executive branch.

“It will fall on deaf ears,” he predicted. “At the end of the day, nothing will happen.”

As for the need for privacy to strike a deal, Schultz says that’s evidence the process is broken.

“Their job is to be accountable to the public,” he said. “If interest groups have too much sway, maybe they should be thinking about campaign finance reform and reining in special interests.”

Schultz noted that school boards and city councils have much stricter rules regarding open meetings and only a very limited number of things can be discussed in secret.

“The state Legislature would be in violation of the very open meetings statutes they mandate local governments follow in Minnesota,” Schultz said.

Pelowski and his fellow committee members hope to come up with ways to improve transparency over a series of meetings this summer. Those recommendations will be considered by the Legislature in 2020.

“I look forward to our efforts to meaningfully address reforms that would allow the legislature to meet its Constitutional responsibility of completing the legislative session on time with a balanced budget,” he said in a statement after the first hearing concluded.