Unintended Consequences

tumafeature“Men are elected to office, not parties.”
Willmar Tribune editorial, April 9, 1913

Sen. A.J. Rockne of Goodhue would later regret his crafty maneuverings in the 1913 legislative session. Rockne was a leader amongst the stalwart Republicans that detested the new surge of progressive energized by Teddy Roosevelt and his Bull Moose Party’s success in the 1912 election. Even worse, these new progressives were strong prohibitionists. In this era liquor politics created major dividing lines within political parties. The stalwarts tended to be “wets”, wanting limited regulation on alcohol sales. The Roosevelt progressives tended to be “dry”, supporting greater local control so that counties and cities could limit or even prohibit alcohol sales within their boundaries.

In 1913, a key provision for dry legislators was making county elections nonpartisan. It was their feeling that if elections were decoupled from party control, counties would be more likely to adopt greater restrictions on alcohol sales. The bill establishing nonpartisan elections for county officials had strong support in the Senate. When the bill reached the Senate floor, Rockne devised a scheme he thought would kill the bill for the session.

Rockne negotiated with House leadership that he would put a “poison bill” amendment on the bill in the Senate requiring legislators to also have nonpartisan elections if the House leaders promised that the provision would be opposed by their members and would quietly die without the bill coming up for consideration in the House.  Rockne and House leadership made a couple major miscalculations with their scheming. First, the Democrats, both wet and dry, saw this as an opportunity to diminish the power of the Republican stalwarts who had essentially controlled state politics since the Civil War. Second, the idea became wildly popular with news editors and the public throughout the state.  In the end, the House was forced to adopt the proposal and as a result, Minnesota legislative elections were nonpartisan until the early 1970s.

One should always be careful in the legislative process not to be too crafty because there can be many unintended consequences to political scheming. This legislative session the House committee that oversees funding from the accounts established by the Legacy Amendment may be heading down a similar avenue of unintended consequences.

Conservation advocates early on felt it was important that Legacy Amendment appropriations must go through a vigorous citizens council oversight process. For example, the outdoor heritage funds require an organization that has a good idea for preservation of our great outdoors to first go to the Lessard Sams Outdoor Heritage Council (LSOHC) and go through a vigorous review process to make sure their proposal will provide positive conservation impacts. Then the LSOHC makes a package recommendation to the Legislature for their adoption.

The House Legacy Committee is poised to make several recommendations for funding over the next 2 years that have not gone through this vigorous LSOHC process. It should be recognized that it is appropriate for the Legislature to have authority to make adjustments because they are the elected officials who are entrusted with overseeing public expenditures. However, any adjustments in this area should be done rarely and not in a fashion that circumvents the tough vetting process of the Council.  It has long been Conservation Minnesota’s position that the Legislature should give great deference to the citizen oversight process of the councils like LSOHC. Failure to do so will lead to some detrimental unintended consequences.

The largest of these unintended consequences would be the loss of high quality professional proposals winning the day. If the Legislature politicizes the selection process, organizations will be left with a very tough decision. Do they hire first-class well-trained conservation professionals to develop a very high quality project that will meet the rigors of the LSOHC process, or do we pay little attention to quality to just simply hire the best capitol insider lobbyists to make it happen at the Legislature? Don’t get me wrong. As a lobbyist I support the good work we can do at the Capitol, but I don’t pretend to know what makes the best conservation projects. That is why we want professionals who understand the best practices in preserving our great outdoors to play the most prominent role in investing these precious dollars.

Therefore, Conservation Minnesota urges the Legislature to exercise caution in rewriting the legislative recommendations of the councils that oversee the Legacy Amendment and the Lottery funds. Like Rockne, in the long run they may end up regretting the consequences of the legislative maneuvering.

About John Tuma

John is a former state legislator and litigation attorney. He served in the Minnesota House of Representatives for eight years from the Northfield area, beginning in 1994. Elected as a Republican, John was known for his independent thinking and ability to work across party lines. He is well-known in Minnesota state government circles.
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