Legislature’s Purple Caucus aims to ease
A Civic Caucus
Review of Minnesota’s Public
Interview August 26, 2016
John Adams, Steve
Anderson, Dave Broden (vice chair), Paul Gilje (executive
director), Dan Loritz (chair), Paul Ostrow, Dana Schroeder
(associate director), Clarence Shallbetter, T. Williams. By
phone: State Senator Jeremy Miller.
The Purple Caucus is a
bipartisan collaboration of Minnesota State Senators aimed at
ending partisan gridlock at the Legislature, according to State
Senator Jeremy Miller (R-Winona). The goal of the Caucus, which
was founded in March 2013, is to bring together legislators from
both political parties to work on positive solutions for
Minnesota, Miller says. He calls the Caucus a "much-needed
platform to get things done in today's political environment."
Miller and State Senator Roger Reinert (DFL-Duluth) are
co-founders and co-chairs of the Purple Caucus. All state
senators are invited to join in the Caucus's work.
The Caucus set priorities for the 2015
and 2016 legislative sessions and had several successes during
those sessions, Miller notes. He lists those successes as moving
forward on child-protection policies, impacting the education
funding conversation, passing a bipartisan tax bill (vetoed by
Gov. Mark Dayton) and working on the Senate side on a bipartisan
bonding bill. Miller believes legislators are noticing those
successes and feel the Purple Caucus is starting to build
Miller asserts that the number one
thing the Purple Caucus can do is to make good-government
changes in the legislative process. He decries the last-minute
nature of voting at the very end of the legislative session on
Omnibus bills that neither legislators, the administration nor
the general public have had time to review.
To put an end to, or at least
minimize, that last-minute voting on bills and to increase
transparency, the Purple Caucus put forth a proposal last spring
that would require all conference-committee reports to be
finalized at least one week before the end of the session. While
the proposal could potentially be adopted by both the House and
the Senate as a joint rule, Miller says it's more likely the
proposal will need legislative action.
Miller also discusses what he calls
the shortsightedness of the Legislature and the important role
of lobbyists in the legislative process.
Minnesota State Senator
Jeremy Miller (R-Winona) is in his second term in the Minnesota
Senate, representing parts of Fillmore, Houston and Winona
Counties. His principal interests as a state senator are
supporting and enhancing the economic and cultural life in
southeastern Minnesota, including stimulating job growth,
improving educational outcomes, and preserving and protecting
the unique natural environment of southeastern Minnesota.
He serves on the Senate Committees on
Capital Investment, Finance, and Higher Education and Workforce
Development (ranking minority member). He is ranking minority
member on the Finance Committee's Higher Education and Workforce
Development Budget Division and also serves on the Finance
Subcommittee on Legacy. He is the co-chair, with State Senator
Roger Reinert (R-Duluth), of the bipartisan Purple Caucus.
Miller is the chief financial officer
and quality, environmental, health and safety management
representative for Wm. Miller Scrap Iron & Metal Co., a
family-owned-and-operated Winona scrap and recycling business
that dates back to 1910. He serves on the President's Advisory
Council at Minnesota State College-Southeast Technical, is vice
president of the Morrie Miller Athletic Foundation, serves as a
director of the Winona State University Warrior Club and Saint
Mary's University Athletic Advisory Board, and is a member of
the Winona Area Chamber of Commerce.
Miller is a 2001 graduate of Winona
Senior High School and earned an associate degree in accounting
from Minnesota State College-Southeast Technical, located in Red
Wing and Winona.
Caucus is undertaking a review of
the quality of Minnesota's past,
present and future public-policy process for anticipating,
defining and resolving major public problems. The Caucus
interviewed State Senator Jeremy Miller to get his assessment of
the kinds of proposals for solving public-policy problems the
Legislature needs and the role a bipartisan legislative group
like the Purple Caucus can play in implementing those proposals.
About the Purple Caucus. In March
2013, State Sen. Jeremy Miller (R-Winona) and State Sen. Roger
Reinert (DFL-Duluth) launched the bipartisan Purple Caucus, a
collaboration of Minnesota legislators. (Red and blue make
purple; thus, the name Purple Caucus.) At that time, Miller
described the goal of the Purple Caucus as bringing together
members of the Legislature from both political parties to work
on positive solutions for Minnesota. Legislators and
constituents are tired of partisan gridlock, he said.
Miller said then that the Caucus would
come together in a bipartisan fashion to prove that the parties
can work together, develop some relationships and do some good
things for the state of Minnesota. The Caucus wants to focus on
issues that bring legislators and Minnesotans together, Miller
said, rather than those that divide people. All state
senatorswould be invited to join in the Caucus's work.
There has been extreme partisanship in the Legislature.
"It seems to be more about party
politics and the next election cycle," said State Senator Jeremy
Miller (R-Winona). "It should be more about what's best for the
people and for the state of Minnesota. When you do what's right
for the state, you'll have a good result."
Miller and State Senator Roger Reinert
(DFL-Duluth) launched the Purple Caucus in 2013. Miller said
he and Reinert, who serve as co-chairs of the Caucus, wanted to
create a platform where people could talk to each other from
different sides of the aisle. There's an open invitation on the
Senate floor for any member to participate, Miller said."Our
schedule in the Senate is so incredibly busy," he said, "that
it's hard to develop personal relationships. We must do that to
Seating legislators by party
affiliation makes it difficult for them to develop relationships
with members of the other party. An interviewer commented
that now legislators are seated by party affiliation, but at one
time it wasn't that way. In the past, two people of different
parties could be seated together and they could develop a
personal relationship. The interviewer said he'd like to see
some consideration of doing that again, perhaps by seniority.
Miller responded that legislators are
seated by caucus, with the majority party in the back portion of
the Senate chamber and the minority party in the front portion.
It's more relaxed during committee meetings, he said, where
legislators of different parties often are comingled. In the
past, legislative colleagues would go out for dinner and get
business done with more candid conversation, but laws have been
passed preventing lobbyists from doing that with legislators
anymore. One bad effect of that legislation, he said, is that
legislators can't get out of the Capitol, which becomes an
In the beginning, there was pushback
against the Purple Caucus from hard-core conservative
Republicans and liberal Democrats. "I'm a conservative
person and a Republican," Miller remarked, "but at the end of
the day, I'm a public servant and a statesman and I try to do
what's best for the state of Minnesota." He said now the Purple
Caucus gets positive feedback from legislators. "People know if
they want to get things done, they have to work together.
They're frustrated with finger pointing and partisanship. I'm
doing it because I want to make a difference."
The number of legislators
participating in the Purple Caucus is growing. Miller said
there were six legislators at the first Caucus meeting in 2013,
which grew to 10 or 12 the following two years and averaged 18
to 20 in 2016. The participants are evenly split between
Democrats and Republicans. The Caucus has no staff.
The Purple Caucus has moved into
setting priorities for each legislative session. Miller said
that in 2013 and 2104, the Caucus's focus was on members getting
to know each other individually and developing relationships.
Then in 2015, the Caucus developed three priorities for the
legislative session: (1) education funding; (2) working on
child-protection policies; and (3) developing a long-term,
comprehensive transportation plan. "We were successful on two of
the three," he said. "We impacted the education funding
conversation and moved forward on child-protection policies."
The Caucus's three priorities for the
2016 session were (1) transportation; (2) a bipartisan bonding
bill and (3) a tax bill. The Legislature passed a tax bill with
strong bipartisan support, but unfortunately, it was vetoed by
the Governor, Miller noted. The Caucus worked on the Senate side
to put forth a bipartisan bonding bill. Ultimately, that effort
failed because of an impasse over light-rail transit (LRT)
He believes legislators are seeing
some success with the Purple Caucus and feel it's starting to
build momentum. "It's tough with the party caucus system,"
Miller said. "It's difficult to vote against your own caucus.
That's a challenge for the Purple Caucus. If legislators put the
people ahead of politics, the Purple Caucus will build
Legislative staff plays an important
role. An interviewer asked whether the large role of
legislative staff "allows legislators to be legislators." Miller
responded that the legislative staff's role is an important one.
"They have a lot of institutional knowledge," he said. "There's
less turnover in higher level staff positions than among
legislators." But the legislative leadership gives direction to
staff, he noted.
There is no Purple Caucus in the
House. Miller believes that because House members are up for
election every two years, it's more difficult for them to take
ownership of something like the Purple Caucus.
If you vote against your district,
chances are you won't be re-elected. "You must have a good
feel for your district and your constituency," Miller asserted.
"I always vote with the district, even if that is sometimes
against my personal views." If legislators vote their districts,
there's a very good chance they'll be back at the Legislature
again, he said.
It's very difficult to change the
legislative process. An interviewer commented that there is
a lot of frustration with the legislative process both inside
and outside the Legislature. "Omnibus bills seem to be out of
control," the interviewer said. "Committee chairs have the power
to cut off debate and preclude issues from getting a hearing."
And the Legislature seems unable to resolve the transportation
issue. He asked whether within the Purple Caucus there is the
potential for making changes in the legislative process that
might decrease partisanship and improve people's confidence in
Miller said it's very difficult to
change the legislative process.But heagreed with the interviewer
about Omnibus bills. "Omnibus bills include everything but the
kitchen sink," he said. "It's totally ridiculous. In order to
get something passed, legislators put it in the Omnibus bill. I
don't like it at all."
Members of the Purple Caucus have been
talking about how to make government more responsive, efficient
and transparent, Miller noted. Late in the 2016 legislative
session, the Caucus developed a proposal to bring more
transparency to the Legislature and to try to put an end to, or
at least minimize, the passing of bills in the last few minutes
of the legislative session.
Miller said the Purple Caucus proposed
that conference-committee reports must be finalized one week
before the end of the session. That way, legislators, the
administration and the general public would have the opportunity
to read and understand what's in the bills being voted on, he
said. "Otherwise, we sometimes have only 10 minutes to review
and pass bills before the deadline," he said.
"That is one of the good-government
policies the Caucus is working on," Miller said. "We think it
would make a significant difference in the approach to the
deadline of the overall session. And citizen involvement is
critically important, especially in the legislative process.
We'll try to do our best to make it a more transparent process."
The same interviewer asked how to
build support outside the Legislature to assure that the Purple
Caucus proposal gets a hearing. Miller replied that the Caucus's
proposal could potentially be a joint rule adopted by both the
House and the Senate. "But," he noted, "it's unlikely that would
happen, so we'd have to take a legislative approach. We need to
make sure people know about it. More support for the Purple
Caucus from outside groups can build a coalition for
The Legislature is very shortsighted.
An interviewer commented that some people believe that because
of partisanship, the Legislature hasn't looked at the long term.
Miller responded that the Legislature is very shortsighted
because it works within a two-year budget cycle and can't do
anything to bind a future Legislature.
With a part-time Legislature,
legislative sessions are really dense. And in a budget year,
most of the time is spent putting together the two-year budget,
making it difficult to spend time on other issues.
The number one thing the Purple Caucus
can do is to make some good-government changes. Miller said
his focus is to bring bipartisanship to the legislative process.
"The Purple Caucus is a much-needed platform to get things done
in today's political environment," he said. "Proposals come from
the left and the right. But to get something passed, it needs to
have bipartisan support."
He said the Caucus has not sought out
proposals from groups outside the Legislature. But it would be
helpful, he said, for the Purple Caucus to have the support of
outside groups when good-government proposals are brought
It's more important to have strong
bipartisan support for good-government ideas than to have the
ideas come from special-interest groups, Miller said.
"Leadership is in a tough position," he stated. "They can't give
too much to the other party. That's where the Purple Caucus can
be helpful. There's nothing wrong with going in front of the
podium and saying this is a bipartisan proposal."
Lobbyists play an important role at
the Legislature. An interviewer asked what outside
disinterested group is most influential today at the
Legislature. Miller named Education Minnesota as an influential
outside group with a very powerful presence on education issues.
"Lobbyists do play an important role
here at the Capitol," he said. "They're hired by different
groups to bring together the shared views of hundreds or
thousands of people by presenting their ideas in a specific
proposal. Lobbyists play a critical role in connecting
legislators to ideas generated by large groups who have in-depth
knowledge of the issues and widespread support across the
Legislators do develop relationships
with lobbyists over time, Miller said. "Many legislators rely on
lobbyists to bring them detailed information and perspectives on
important issues. Good lobbyists know the views of the group
they represent inside and out and can help legislators
understand a viewpoint they might not have considered otherwise.
We learn who to trust and who not to trust. Really good
lobbyists will tell you both sides of an issue. There's a lot of
money spent on lobbyists, but the amount of money spent does not
necessarily correlate to their effectiveness. It really comes
down to the merit of the ideas they are bringing to the table
and their skill at presenting them."
The Civic Caucus
is a non-partisan,
tax-exempt educational organization. The Interview Group
includes persons of varying political persuasions,
reflecting years of leadership in politics and
business. Click here
to see a short personal background of each.
S. Adams, David Broden, Audrey Clay, Janis Clay, Pat Davies, Bill
Frenzel, Paul Gilje (executive director), Dwight Johnson, Randy Johnson, Sallie
Kemper, Ted Kolderie,
Dan Loritz (chair), Tim McDonald, Bruce Mooty, Jim Olson, Paul Ostrow, Wayne
Popham, Dana Schroeder, Clarence Shallbetter, and Fred Zimmermany,