Tricia Grimes, retired staff member of
the Minnesota Legislature
and the Minnesota Office of Higher Education
Some legislators seem to feel itís more
important to score points than to govern well
Caucus Review of
Minnesotaís Legislative Process
Interview July 21, 2017
John Adams, Steve
Anderson, Janis Clay (executive director), Paul Gilje, Mark
Grimes, Tricia Grimes, Randy Johnson, Dan Loritz, Paul Ostrow
(chair), Bill Rudelius, Dana Schroeder (associate director),
Tricia Grimes, retired staff member of
the Minnesota Legislature and the Minnesota Office of Higher
Education, says that legislators rarely get credit for how hard
they work and should take the raise that is currently pending.
She also believes legislators are trying to do the best for the
people they represent. But she worries that too few legislators
these days seem to feel it's important to govern well. Instead,
they think it's more important to score points.
Grimes says that in the 1970s and
1980s, the higher education bill used to be bipartisan.
Legislators used to work out a consensus on bills in the
Appropriations Committee and the higher education policy
committee. Now, she says, committees seem to be less important
in the Legislature, since the policy and finance committees have
been combined. And legislators have become less willing to take
"no" for an answer, so they bring fights to the House and Senate
She notes that because the Legislature
has become so much less bipartisan, not very many bills pass.
The great temptation is for legislators to put unrelated matters
or policy measures into the must-pass appropriations bill, she
says. Grimes believes we need to be concerned both about the way
legislators get elected and how they behave once they get to the
Legislature. But she considers the more crucial issue how they
behave once they get elected. She believes that legislators are
Tricia Grimes is a retired staff
member of the Minnesota Legislature and the Minnesota Office of
Higher Education. She worked for the State of Minnesota for 38
years in the field of higher education. She was a nonpartisan
fiscal analyst in the Minnesota House of Representatives from
1976 to 1984. She joined the staff of the Minnesota Higher
Education Coordinating Board in 1985, with much of her work
there focusing on postsecondary student financial aid and
student loans, in particular.
When the Coordinating Board became a
cabinet-level agency in 2004 and was renamed the Minnesota
Office of Higher Education, Grimes became the agency's
legislative liaison. She advocated for many things the agency
needed at the Legislature, but much of it revolved around
funding for the Minnesota State Grant Program, which helps low-
and moderate-income Minnesotans pay for college. She held that
position for 10 years, until retiring in 2014.
Grimes received a bachelor's degree in
economics from Grinnell College and a master's degree in public
affairs from the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of
Since September 2015, the Civic Caucus
has been undertaking a review of
the quality of Minnesota's past,
present and future public-policy process for anticipating,
defining and resolving major community problems. On Nov. 27,
2016, the Caucus issued its report based on that review,
Thinking Ahead: Strengthening Minnesota'sPublic-Policy Process.Starting
in May 2017, the Civic Caucus began a review of Minnesota's
legislative process. The Caucus interviewed Tricia Grimes,
retired staff member of the Minnesota House and of the Minnesota
Office of Higher Education, for her perspectives on the workings
of the Minnesota Legislature.
Legislators rarely get credit for how
hard they work. "It's harder and harder for legislators to
keep jobs in the long run that allow them to work 80 hours a
week for six months of the year," said retired legislative staff
member Tricia Grimes. "People don't always realize that
legislators are expected to appear "at every chicken dinner,
town festival, parade and community meeting in their districts.
They're supposed to be well informed on all the local affairs
going on in their jurisdiction. They're expected to do a lot of
things other than being in Saint Paul. When they're in Saint
Paul, they meet with dozens of people every day."
Legislative staff members are not
supposed to get in the press. "That is a clear norm for
legislative staff," Grimes said. The legislators are the ones
who are supposed to get in the press. When you're an agency
staff person, she said, usually the agency head gets in the
press. But, toward the end of her career, she often became the
spokesperson for the Office of Higher Education on student-loan
No matter how much you might disagree
with a legislator's politics, each legislator is trying to do
his or her best for the people. "We don't always remember
that," Grimes said. "We think of them sometimes as power hungry.
Certainly, power seduces. Having seen the Legislature both when
working there and from dealing with it for many years, I never
saw any corruption. Minnesota's Legislature is so squeaky clean,
it's amazing. Legislators are clearly not motivated by money.
Otherwise they wouldn't work for $31,000 a year. I think they
deserve every penny they're paid and they should take the raise
that is currently pending."
In the 1970s and 1980s, the higher
education bill used to be bipartisan. Grimes said
legislators like to spend money on education, particularly on
higher education. "They see it as investing in the future," she
said. At that time, the higher education bill went from a
division of the Appropriations Committee to the full committee.
That meant that at least 25 legislators had a chance to ask
questions about the bill and hear about it in-depth. "I think
that was important in building consensus about a bill," she
"The legislators always fought much
more over the health and human services and corrections
appropriations than over the education bills," Grimes said.
"They didn't want people to starve or be badly treated, but they
didn't want to spend an extra penny on health, human services
and corrections, either. They'd really rather spend the money on
Now voters often elect legislators who
want to cut taxes. "That means cutting spending or failing
to increase appropriations, because there's more emphasis on the
larger goal of cutting taxes," Grimes said. "Even legislators
who want to spend money on education don't do it, because
they're trying to meet that larger goal of cutting taxes."
Some trends follow demographics more
than we realize. When baby-boomer children were in
elementary and secondary education, Grimes said, they were a
larger percentage of the population than the E-12 students are
now. Now, 14 percent of Minnesota's population is 65 or over.
"So, maybe we shouldn't be surprised that we spend more money on
health care and senior causes," she said. "There are more of us
who are older and more of us who are demanding of our
legislators that they spend money on the things we care about."
Around 2020, the population in Minnesota over 65 will be larger
than the population ages five to 17. That will affect the way we
spend money in education versus health and human services.
Grimes's attitude toward state
agencies changed when she moved from working for the Legislature
to working for the Office of Higher Education. Grimes said
when she worked for the Minnesota House, she thought state
agency staff were not always doing what the Legislature wanted.
"My attitude changed when I started working for a state agency,"
she said, "because the Legislature would require that we do
certain things and not provide the staff we needed to do them."
During the tie in the Minnesota House
in 1979, there were 67 Democrats and 67 Republicans. "The
whole place kind of went tilt, because the whole place is built
on majority rule and there was no majority," said Grimes, who
was on the House staff at the time. For three weeks, the two
sides negotiated with each other, she said, during which time
the legislative staff was not paid, until a Speaker was elected
three weeks later. Legislators finally agreed to have a
Republican serve as speaker of the House--Rod Searle (IR-Waseca)--and
members of both parties serve as House majority leaders--Irv
Anderson (DFL-International Falls) and Jerry Knickerbocker (IR-Minnetonka).
Grimes said Democrats served as chairs of the education,
appropriations and tax committees.
"It actually worked quite well,"
Grimes said. "They realized they couldn't take one step without
the other." She said they pre-negotiated everything and things
But by June 1979, Rep. Robert Pavlak (IR-St.
Paul) was removed from office because of unfair campaign
practices and was replaced by DFLer Frank Rodriguez, who had won
a special election to fill Pavlak's seat. So, the DFL gained a
one-seat majority for the 1980 legislative session.
Nonpartisan staff at the Legislature
serve as the institutional memory. "They're the ones who
know a program has been tried three times before and hasn't
worked," Grimes said. "They tend to not get enough credit."
When Grimes was a nonpartisan staff
member of the House, she and five other nonpartisan fiscal
analysts were fired when the Republicans took control of the
House in 1984. But, she noted, since that time, neither the
House nor the Senate has fired nonpartisan staff members. "They
figured out it wasn't a good idea," she said.
Fiscal notes are requested by the
Legislature to price out how much a bill would cost to
implement. "If something's not been done before, you are
making an educated guess about what it would cost," Grimes said.
As part of the process, staff members have to write down what
their assumptions are. "But really, you are just guessing," she
said. "The Legislature gets mad if you guess what they think is
high. But if you guess low, your agency will have to live with
that for a long time. The incentive probably is to guess high,
but I never saw anyone do that. The pressure is really high to
minimize the cost and say you can absorb it."
She said the Minnesota Department of
Management & Budget (MMB) now requires that the agencies show
how much they would be absorbing under each bill. MMB and
legislative fiscal analysts ask lots of questions about fiscal
notes. Agencies are often under major time pressure to produce
the fiscal notes, often in just three or four days.
A recent Pew national poll showed that
58 percent of Republicans think higher education institutions
having a negative effect on the way things are going in the
country. Grimes said she
believes two things may be causing that: (1) Conservative
speakers who have been canceled or shouted down on campuses,
which is not good for free speech; and (2) Many people think
higher education didn't do anything for their relatives. They
didn't complete a degree or certificate and just ended up with
loans to pay back and no degree to help them get a better job.
Also, college changes people and they become different.
What are some of the highest priority
areas relating to the future of the Legislature where citizen
involvement in suggesting improvements would be really critical?
An interviewer asked that question and Grimes suggested
Speaking up for the least of us.
She said legislators
get a lot of pushback when they try to do affordable housing
or help people who've been in prison. Speaking up in favor of
these efforts gives legislators some cover to do things that
are unpopular in the short run, but necessary for society in
the long run.
Speaking up for legislators to be paid a decent wage.
"We could be in the situation where only the rich will be able
to serve in the Legislature," she said. "I think people
underestimate how important that is. Really good legislators
have left so they can support their families."
The Minnesota Higher Education
Coordinating Board (HECB) used to think about what higher
education should be doing for the state. An interviewer made
that comment and asked, "Who's talking about what we are getting
for our money?"
Grimes responded that until 2004, HECB
was an independent agency, not a state agency. "It had lots of
responsibility, but almost no authority," she said. "It was
supposed to talk about the future of higher education in
Minnesota and try to get the University of Minnesota, Minnesota
State, the private colleges and the for-profit colleges to do
what's good for the state. But it had almost no authority to
make that happen. It was not a perfect system."
When the Coordinating Board became a
cabinet agency, she said, higher education got a seat at the
table for budget negotiations. That's been somewhat good for
higher education. "But some of the advocacy for the overall
long-run needs of the state and the economy is not getting the
voice it should," she said.
The interviewer remarked that during
these types of discussions at the Legislature, it seems it's
always about money, not about outcomes. Grimes said that's
partly because both the House and the Senate now have money and
policy in the same committee, instead of having a separate
policy committee and a separate appropriations committee, as was
done in the past. The leadership of the House and Senate would
have to decide to change that.
She said another thing that gets in
the way of the state making higher education policy is the
constitutional autonomy granted to the University of Minnesota
(U of M) and the independence of the private colleges. She
pointed out, though, that there is performance funding for the U
of M and Minnesota State, which covers five percent of their
For the second year of a biennium,
this funding is contingent on the institutions meeting at least
three of five performance characteristics. "They very carefully
set the performance characteristics so the public postsecondary
systems are likely to meet them," Grimes said. One example of a
performance characteristic is that Minnesota State improve its
retention rate by one percent. She said that has been a
performance goal for at least six years and Minnesota State has
not met it.
"It started out as a legitimate effort
to get some accountability," she said. "But higher education
leaders can always come up with a rationale about why they can
or can't do something."
What is the impact on the legislative
process of so many legislative proposals ending up in omnibus
bills, rather than as single-subject bills? An interviewer
asked that question and Grimes said legislative staffers used to
call the big bills "garbage bills." She said in the second year
of a biennium, when the budget is already in place, there's a
supplemental appropriations bill that becomes a magnet for
anything people want to be sure passes. She said there has been
a push-pull by the Legislature on whether policy should be
included in these spending bills.
"Now that the Legislature has become
so much less bipartisan," Grimes said, "not that many bills
pass. The temptation to put things in an appropriations bill,
which has to pass, gets really high. That contributes to the
whole problem of adding stuff. And deciding what's relevant is a
slippery slope. It's a judgment call."
An interviewer who once worked at the
Legislature commented that because of the tough tradeoff
decisions to be made, all policy is actually decided in the Ways
and Means or Finance Committees.
Are legislative committees less
important now? An interviewer noted that when former
legislator and retired judge Jack Davies met with the Civic
Caucus on May 19, 2017, (see
legislative procedures harm citizens, Legislature")
he said things used to get resolved in committee work, but now
committees have diminished importance. Grimes agreed with
Davies. "People refuse to hear 'no' for an answer, so they keep
fighting and take it to the floor to get resolved," she said.
Do questions ever come up about how
much learning is going on at the state's public postsecondary
institutions? An interviewer who is a retired professor from
the University of Minnesota asked that question. He said college
graduates need critical thinking skills and that he is obsessed
with getting professors back to teaching undergraduates.
Grimes responded that those questions
about learning do come up at the Legislature. "But every time
legislators talk about trying to measure learning and what
learning should be, academic freedom rears its head to an
extremely great degree," she said. "The legislator who proposed
it ends up sorry that he or she brought it up."
Are there areas where the Legislature
can make things better and areas where it shouldn't get
involved? An interviewer asked that question and Grimes gave
the example of regulation. "We need regulation in a market
economy to prevent excesses and to prevent fraud," she said.
"But it's hard to find the balance between enough regulation to
keep the really bad stuff from happening, but not so much as to
get in the way of business."
Nationally, she said, often Democrats
come in with heavy-handed regulations that don't take into
account what it's like to operate businesses or higher education
institutions. And they don't pay nearly enough attention to
incentives. Often, Republicans don't want bad stuff to happen,
but they really don't want to spend enough money for staff to do
regulation adequately, either.
We should be concerned about (1) what
happens before legislators get to the Legislature (i.e., the
election process) and (2) how they behave once they get there. An
interviewer made that comment and asked which of these things
citizen groups should be more concerned about and what topics
related to the more important concern the groups should explore.
Grimes responded that evidence-based policymaking, i.e., what
research shows will work, is an important topic. She said, "I
think citizen groups have a role in saying, 'This is what the
evidence says. You have to pay attention to what the evidence
says and also to funding for getting the evidence through
On the question of whether citizens
groups should concentrate on how legislators get elected versus
how they govern when they get there, Grimes noted that the
skills it takes to get elected and the skills to govern are two
completely different things that too rarely overlap.
She said the National Conference of
State Legislatures does a "pretty good job" of trying to educate
legislators about what it takes to be a good legislator. "But my
worry is that too few legislators these days seem to feel it's
important to govern well," she said. "They just think it's
important to score points."
Grimes said she believes how
legislators get elected and how they behave once they get to the
Legislature are both important. "But how they behave after they
get elected is really crucial," she said. "They're educable."
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 (executive director), Pat Davies, Bill Frenzel, Paul Gilje, Dwight Johnson, Randy Johnson, Sallie
Kemper, Ted Kolderie,
Dan Loritz, Tim McDonald, Bruce Mooty, Jim Olson, Paul Ostrow
Popham, Dana Schroeder, Clarence Shallbetter, and Fred Zimmermany,