More than most Americans, Minnesotans are friendly toward government. What else explains 854 municipalities and 1,790 townships in 87 counties?
It’s politicians that Minnesotans aren’t crazy about.
That’s my take on the unusual extent to which this state’s governance has been a citizen-driven enterprise, populated by (supposedly) half-year legislators, part-time city and county elected officials, and citizen participants in a plethora of boards and commissions. Minnesotans evidently consider government too important to be left entirely in politicians’ control.
Here’s some wonkish trivia: Minnesota’s governor is charged with appointing 1,400 citizen members to a whopping 130 public boards. As of last week, Gov. Mark Dayton had made 2,451 such appointments through six-plus years in office.
“These people appear to have control of their own destiny,” syndicated columnist Neal Peirce observed about Minnesotans in his 1973 book, “The Great Plains States of America.”
He praised the Minnesota pattern of appointing citizens to policy-setting boards as key to good government in these parts. “Dedicated and interested lay citizens … more concerned with the breadth and quality of services delivered than with special professional prerogatives” control an uncommon share of public decisionmaking in Minnesota, Peirce wrote. The result, he said, was “as good a model as one can find in these United States of a successful society.”
It turns out that even a successful citizens-in-charge model is hard to sustain. Evidence is accumulating that politicians and their narrow-interest allies will only share power with mere citizens for so long and so far. Witness the fates of some of the Minnesota citizens boards Peirce praised:
• The Higher Education Coordinating Board was originally a council of college presidents. In 1971, it became a citizen board charged with recommending ways to bring more efficiency and better outcomes to state higher-ed spending. It was gone by the mid-1990s, felled as the MnSCU (now Minnesota State) merger occurred amid grumbling by public colleges and universities about the board’s ideas.
More recently, the 24 good citizens on the Regent Candidate Advisory Council recommended 12 candidates for four seats on the University of Minnesota Board of Regents. The Legislature chose from that list for three of the positions and went its own way on the fourth.
• The Water Pollution Board that Peirce admired became the Pollution Control Agency’s Citizens’ Board. It was eliminated by the 2015 Legislature despite howls of protest from environmental advocacy groups. The board ran afoul of the state’s powerful farm lobby after seeking more review of a proposed 9,000-cow dairy feedlot near Chokio.
This session, the Environmental Quality Board — another successor to the old water board — is also under the gun. Composed of state agency heads and five citizen members charged with coordinating interagency activities to protect the environment, the EQB would disappear under terms of a bill pushed by the state Chamber of Commerce.
• Peirce called the Metropolitan Council “one of the most advanced regional government bodies in the country.” That was so, he said, precisely because it was not a collection of local elected officials “defending their own domains,” as was typical elsewhere. Minnesota’s Met Council members are appointed by the governor and “come directly out of the citizenry.”
This session, the long knives are out for the Met Council — or at least for gubernatorial appointment of its members. The body’s critics say appointed council members are insufficiently accountable. But those complaining the loudest aren’t calling for the direct election of council members, which would bring real accountability to the people. They want a council more accountable to local government officials, who under one reform scheme would choose council members.
Topping my list of disregarded and/or endangered citizen governing bodies is one too new to be on Peirce’s list — the Legislative Salary Council.
Created by the directive of a whopping 76 percent of the voters in the last election, the council is constitutionally empowered to set legislators’ salaries. Voters took that authority away from the Legislature itself after a campaign that pointed out that by failing to raise salaries for 18 years, legislators were damaging the representational nature of representative democracy. At $31,140 per year, too many would-be candidates could not afford to serve.
The new council can set legislative salaries — but it cannot fund them. So claimed House Speaker Kurt Daudt last week as he directed the House’s finance staff to disregard the $14,000 annual pay raise adopted on March 10 by the 16 citizen-members of the council. He’s also apparently disregarding the council’s recommendation that the Legislature get rid of per diem, the backdoor pay supplement legislators are eligible to collect.
Never mind what the Constitution now says about setting salaries, Daudt argued. The Constitution also says that only the Legislature can appropriate funds.
It’s likely that a judge — or seven state Supreme Court justices — will settle the constitutional question posed by Daudt’s defiance of the council’s decision. The wait for their wisdom allows us pundits plenty of time for speculation about how Minnesotans will judge Daudt’s move.
My hunch: Minnesotans still value government. They want it to do its assigned duties efficiently, fairly and well. And they still aren’t crazy about politicians. They didn’t like the way the Legislature was handling its own compensation and used their best tool — the state Constitution — to reassign that duty to appointed citizens.
When legislators disregard a change like that, citizens become cynical. They feel unheeded and undervalued by politicians and sense that government has slipped out of their control. They become vulnerable to suasion by a demagogue who doesn’t believe in democracy but claims, “You can trust me — I’m on your side.”
Could that happen in a state — or a nation — hailed not long ago as the model of a successful democratic society? It seems more plausible by the day.
Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at firstname.lastname@example.org.