Tuesday, September 30, 2014
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Learning legislative lessons in Seattle
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Minnesota legislators Kathy Tingelstad and Dennis Ozment, talking after an environmental session at the NCSL. (MPR photo/Laura McCallum)
More than a dozen Minnesota legislators are in Seattle this week to meet with other lawmakers from around the country. They're among about 6,000 attendees at the annual convention of the National Conference of State Legislatures. Some of the Minnesotans at the meeting say the state is still viewed as a leader in many areas, despite this year's grueling special session and partial government shutdown.

Seattle, Wash. — A sizable contingent of Minnesota lawmakers and staff is in Seattle this week. That's a change from the past few years, when an out-of-state travel ban kept most Minnesotans away from national conferences.

State Rep. Kathy Tingelstad, R-Andover, is attending her first NCSL convention. Tingelstad chairs the House Government Operations Committee, and the Legislative Commission on Natural Resources. She's picking up ideas from her colleagues in other states on government efficiency and the environment.

"I think what I'm really hearing is that Minnesota DOES do a lot of things right, but we can also do things better and learn from other states," she says.

Tingelstad says Minnesota should improve its budget process, in light of the first government shutdown in state history. She says most other states have some type of continuing budget resolution to fund state government if the Legislature doesn't pass a new budget.

But Tingelstad says she hasn't heard many comments on Minnesota's budget battle this week in Seattle, possibly because so many other states are wrestling with similar issues.

"Obviously, the conflict is nationwide between the conservatives and the liberals, and everybody is very opinionated, so Minnesota isn't anything different," says Tingelstad.

For example, Texas just ended its second 30-day special session without agreement on K-12 funding. Arturo Perez, who keeps tabs on state budgets across the country for the National Conference of State Legislatures, says there's not much talk about Minnesota's budget stalemate any more.

"Minnesota did make headlines across the country in regards to having the only partial government shutdown for states in 2005," Perez says. "But in the same way that people have forgotten that Tennessee, just a few years ago, had a similar situation with a lot more state personnel displaced for three days, it happens that others will also perhaps move on to the next issues of concern involving their state budgets."

The NCSL released a budget report this week showing that across the country, state finances improved in the last fiscal year, largely because of strong revenue growth. But, nationally, state spending is also on the rise, particularly on health care, education and prisons.

During an NCSL panel on state budgets, DFL Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson told a packed room that lawmakers will be judged politically by how they deal with the budget. He said he wasn't proud of Minnesota's eight-day government shutdown, but said the final budget was worth the protracted debate.

Afterwards, Johnson said he hasn't heard one comment about Minnesota's shutdown this week.

"When they hear you're from Minnesota, three or four things come to the forefront," Johnson says. "One is, do you know Jesse Ventura? Number two, oh, that's a great state for lakes and how beautiful it is. Number three, the health care system we have, and number four, the education."

Johnson and other Minnesota lawmakers say one of the highlights of this week's convention was a speech by Microsoft founder Bill Gates, who talked about the importance of investing in education.

Johnson also toured the downtown ballpark for the Seattle Mariners -- something the Minnesota Twins had arranged. He brought along Republican Sens. Gen Olson and Pat Pariseau. A new Twins stadium will likely be on the agenda if there's a second special session this fall.

Olson says the tour was a chance for the three senators to spend some time together, away from the often partisan debates at the Capitol.

"A lot of people I don't think realize that there is good rapport among many of our members," says Olson. "There may be things that we dislike or disagree on, but I don't think that translates to disliking the person."

Olson says Minnesota continues to be a leader in many areas of state government, such as education. She cites the new teacher performance pay initiative passed this year. Olson says she doesn't think the state's image took a major beating this year -- she says too many other states have the same budget problems.

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