Minnesota Senator Tom Bakk said the best
way by far to contact a legislator is to write a handwritten letter.
He said he manages his own e-mail, so he doesn't receive the mass
e-mails that are sent to every legislator at once.
Protecting the integrity of the
Legislature as an institution is a priority. Bakk said that is a
major priority for him moving forward. "The Legislature is a place
way bigger than anybody," he said.
Bakk commented that he tells freshmen
legislators that after they leave the Legislature, no one is going
to remember them. "You won't get remembered for what you did," he
advises them. "But you will be remembered for how you treated
people." He also says they should act to keep people's trust in
their government, especially since so many people have lost faith in
the Federal government. "I don't want to have people think of our
State Capitol that way," he said
He believes that decorum is important and
affects how the public sees the Legislature. He noted ways
that decorum in the State Senate is different from that in the
- Male senators must wear suit jackets and ties when on the
floor. Female senators also have a dress code, but it's not
specific as to articles of clothing.
- Everyone must speak to the president of the Senate, not to the
individual a senator is trying to address.
- The Senate doesn't allow photographs to be taken on the floor
when in session, but the House does.
"The decorum in the Senate helps the
public maintain respect for the institution," Bakk said.
He believes in a citizen Legislature so
that legislators are not only career politicians. And he commented
on the importance of legislative staff members, since they have the
institutional memory and they interact with constituents.
Education is another high priority.
Bakk said that because he has seven grandchildren, he thinks more
about education than anything else. "Young minds are like sponges,"
He's skeptical of Governor Mark Dayton's
universal pre-K proposals. "I'm not sure four-year-olds are ready
for full-day school," he said. "Some are, but some aren't." Bakk
said the current policy of providing scholarships for early
childhood is different from providing universal preschool. "The
scholarships are helping poor families and kids in poverty," he
said. "They're providing additional help to them."
Consideration of major policy issues
starts with a study or report. Bakk made that statement when an
interviewer noted that a task force appointed by the governor has
issued a report on mental health. Bakk mentioned the importance of
studies done by the Legislative Auditor, the University of Minnesota
and special state commissions.
He stated that in the budget, every dollar
to be spent is in competition with other spending. "New things
compete with current spending," he said. "You must show there's some
value to new proposals. You must be able to make a case."
Bakk said it's important to plant ideas in
the minds of other people. Then you can put someone else on the
stage to carry the idea forward. As an example, he said he went to
Senator Susan Kent (DFL-Woodbury) about improving the ratio of
school counselors to students. He said Minnesota ranked 49th or 50th
in the nation on that ratio. "Not all parents expose kids to
careers, so where's the counselor?" Bakk asked. Kent then
successfully carried the proposal for increasing the number of
counselors by creating cost sharing with school districts: the state
would pay part of the cost and the school district would pay part.
The state budget forecast is very
important. Bakk said the governor will build his budget based on
the Dec. 2, 2016, budget forecast of a $1.4 billion surplus. The
next forecast, on March 1, 2017, will affect the governor's
According to Bakk, Senator Paul Gazelka
(R-Nisswa), the incoming Senate Majority Leader, will focus on tax
cuts. "They're very popular," Bakk said. "But what do they do to the
state's quality of life?"
Groups that are organized are incredibly
effective at the Legislature. Bakk gave the example of the
Minnesota United Snowmobilers Association as a very well organized
group. "No one's going to mess with them," he said. An interviewer
commented that groups like that represent special interests. He
asked Bakk about how well organizations do who don't have "a dog in
Bakk stated that the electric co-ops are
the most effective organizations around the Legislature. "They are
grass roots, since the people own them," he said. "They're very
effective about communicating with the Legislature. They're
incredibly powerful here." To be effective, you need to build
organizations that touch a lot of members, he said.
An interviewer asked what kind of
legitimacy the Legislature gives outside, non-special-interest
groups. "Finding a legislative champion is important," Bakk
responded, "especially one who's going to be here for awhile.
Someone has to write a bill. It must be a bill with a number, so we
can have public testimony. A good idea without a constituency is not
going to go anywhere." He said most ideas in the Legislature come
from somewhere else, including legislators' constituents.
Bakk tells new legislators to choose the
committees they'd like to serve on by picking something in which
they're interested. He advises them to develop expertise in certain
subject areas. "People get developed on certain paths," he said. "If
you're looking for legislators to back a proposal, find those who
have a passion for that subject area. Don't necessarily pick your
It's not clear the Metropolitan Council
will survive. Bakk gave that response to an interviewer who
noted considerable changes in the Council over the years since its
inception as a regional council for waste disposal. "Is it an arm of
the governor or should cities pick its members?" Bakk asked. "I side
with the governor making appointments to the Council because that
introduces stability. Some people coming out of cities have narrow
Another interviewer commented that when
the Metro Council was created in the late 1960s, its job was to look
to the future and to how things fit together. "When you eliminate an
organization that forces people to think about the future,
everything degenerates into the here and now," the interviewer
asserted. "This state was built by people who invested in the
future. How do we keep in mind the future? How do we identify ideas
so that 25 years from now, we'll be proud of what we've done?"
"People are getting the government they
deserve," Bakk responded. "Tax cuts are popular, but they're not
leading us forward." He said transportation is one of the biggest
issues facing the state and he believes light-rail transit (LRT) is
an investment in the next generation. "Legislators have fought like
dogs about the Southwest LRT line," he said.
Another interviewer commented that
landowners should put more into the pot paying for LRT. Bakk said
the Green Line LRT shouldn't take an hour to get from St. Paul to
Minneapolis, but all the property owners along the way felt their
businesses were going to be passed by if there weren't more stops.
"That's what happened, instead of a larger vision," he said.
Perhaps the Civic Caucus should create
chapters around the state. Bakk made that suggestion in response
to an interviewer's question about what the role of the Civic Caucus
should be. Bakk said it's a lot of work to create chapters, but it
gives more of a statewide perspective and perception.
The interviewer said the Civic Caucus does
what it can in terms of making the group a statewide organization.
Bakk responded that people will put more energy into the
organization when they have more ownership of it. The Caucus should
look for ways to make it more localized, he said.
We've probably gone backwards in
education, most likely because of testing. Bakk gave that
response to an interviewer's question about how the University of
Minnesota and Minnesota State Colleges and Universities are
connected to what goes on in K-12 public education. "All the money
in K-12 education goes to things they're going to test in," Bakk
Noting that he's been a carpenter for 40
years, Bakk said there are lots of blue-collar occupations that kids
need to be exposed to, but industrial arts classes have been dropped
in most high schools. "We need to make sure we're preparing kids for
educational opportunities in all fields," he said.
Bakk believes we don't pay teachers
enough. "It doesn't make teaching very attractive," he said. "We
have significant labor shortages coming in this country. Will we
always be able to attract the best and the brightest into teaching?
Money does matter."
"We've asked teachers to do more than ever
before," Bakk continued. "The quality of teachers is very important.
I'm very, very concerned about that. I believe we should have higher
pay and a longer school year. Our future depends on the quality of
education. We've always been pretty good about that."
Although Minnesota doesn't have a good
climate and is far away from many things, Bakk said our Fortune 500
companies have been incredibly successful here. He noted that the
big companies are very important, because they buy lots of things
from Minnesota vendors. "They've been successful because of our
labor force," he said of the large companies.
Take a go-slow approach to education
reform. An interviewer asked how receptive the Legislature
is to "innovative and imaginative" educational policy proposals that
would make Minnesota a national model. "The pendulum has swung
significantly," Bakk responded. "It's no secret that the Democratic
caucuses have been aligned with Education Minnesota (the statewide
teachers' union); the Republicans less so. So, the reformers have a
much larger seat at the table right now."
"My word of caution," Bakk continued, "is
that change for the sake of change comes with a great deal of
uncertainty. I think you need to be careful. If reforms are going to
come forward, I think it's OK for them to start small. Then see what
the outcomes are. If they're worth doing, any major initiatives will
go through a number of revisions over the years. It's unusual for
something big to pass where all the bugs are worked out, because
there are always some unintended consequences or something you
"If we're going to go down that reform
road, I would urge some caution so people don't try to hit a
homerun," Bakk said. "Our educational system is critically important
to our future. We've been pretty good. Certainly, we can be better.
I would argue a go-slow approach on reform, rather than tipping
everything on its head."
Bakk said there will be a significant
effort this legislative session toward tuition tax credits or some
kind of private-school vouchers. "That will play out big at the end
of the game with the governor," he said, "but I don't know how it
will play out."
Omnibus bills are very important, but
should not include policy. Bakk believes in the importance of
omnibus bills and said it could be harmful if legislators broke the
tax bill, for example, into four parts. "We must narrow the
opportunities for the minority to govern," he said.