Statehouse Stalemate? Call a Mediator

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Two statehouse opponents describe how a facilitator from the Center for Efficient Collaboration helped them co-author landmark legislation. Click here to read our case study of the process.

This article was originally published in Governing magazine, September 11, 2015, bCarolyn Laine and Tim Mahoney

Carolyn Laine

“Why can’t you politicians get along?” That’s a question you usually hear while knocking on doors as a state legislator. But the curious fact is that legislators who battle ruthlessly for majority control are also increasingly advocating for cooperative problem-solving — at least outside of the statehouse. Many states now mandate mediation of certain legal disputes, ranging from divorce to farm debts to land-use conflicts, and at least a third of the states have funded statewide-dispute resolution offices.

Tim MahoneyThis kind of collaboration might not seem to be a good fit in the arena of legislative debate, but we experienced its effectiveness firsthand when we took part in facilitated dialogues on a policy question that had been snarled in the Minnesota legislature for years. The issue, ironically, was child custody — an area where family courts use mediation as the tool of first resort. Minnesota is one of about 20 states that have been grappling with how courts should divide time with the kids when parents separate. Emotions run high in these debates, pressured by high divorce rates, changing parenting roles, and arguments about fairness to fathers and protection from domestic violence.

Minnesota’s experiment in collaborative lawmaking did not look promising. While both of us are Democratic members of the Minnesota House, we had been fighting on opposites sides of the child-custody debate. Distrust and disdain ran deep in both directions. We’d never seen a professional facilitator step into the legislative process. House and Senate leaders assumed the dialogues were merely a ploy by one side to demonstrate the intransigence of the other.

Yet we ended up working with other warring stakeholders to co-author legislation that passed nearly unanimously this May. And we did it without anyone having to back down on their principles.

Read the full article here.