Minnesota lawmakers debate how to avoid chaos in Legislature's closing days
ST. PAUL -- There's got to be a better way. That was a common reaction to the frantic and chaotic ending of the Minnesota legislative session this spring. After dithering over the budget for five months, leaders of the Republican-controlled House...
ST. PAUL -- There’s got to be a better way.
That was a common reaction to the frantic and chaotic ending of the Minnesota legislative session this spring.
After dithering over the budget for five months, leaders of the Republican-controlled House and Democratic-Farmer-Labor-led Senate slapped together a spending plan behind closed doors three days before the deadline for adjournment.
House and Senate conference committees, often meeting privately, quickly rushed budget bills to the floors for final votes May 18, the last day of the session. That gave the public and most rank-and-file lawmakers little time to read and no opportunity to change the proposed laws.
On the final night of the session, House Republican Speaker Kurt Daudt of Crown received the last budget bill from the Senate less than two minutes before the midnight deadline. With members of the DFL minority standing and screaming that they didn’t have time to read the 94-page jobs bill, Daudt put it to a vote seconds before time ran out.
The budget-making problems didn’t end there.
Legislative leaders cut Gov. Mark Dayton out of the final negotiations, and he promptly vetoed three of the biggest spending bills. That sparked another round of backroom give-and-take before the governor called lawmakers back into a special session June 12 to wrap up a $42 billion state budget for the next two years.
Last-minute lawmaking has become routine under the Capitol dome in recent years.
“But this year was clearly worse than it’s ever been before,” House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, said last month.
Does anyone outside the Capitol care how lawmakers operate?
“To the general public, this is sort of inside baseball,” Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, said last week.
But several of the 60-plus voters attending a jam-packed town hall meeting with local legislators Thursday evening at St. Paul’s Hamline Midway Library said they were paying attention to the session and didn’t like what they heard and read.
“It was a mess,” said Ruth Ellen Luehr of Roseville.
Luehr said bills weren’t thoroughly vetted, and legislators often didn’t know what was in the bills on which they voted. “That’s despicable,” she said.
The Legislature was “dysfunctional,” said Alice Duggan of St. Paul. “There was not a meeting of minds, and that’s just not good governance.”
Paul Westermeyer of Roseville offered a harsher verdict: “It’s idiotic. It’s a system in which there’s no concern for the common good.”
The citizens didn’t blame Sen. John Marty of Roseville and Reps. Alice Hausman and John Lesch of St. Paul, the three DFLers who hosted the meeting.
Questioned about the last-minute budget making, Hausman assured the crowd, “We hate it as much as you do.”
Other lawmakers agree the legislative process is broken and needs repairs. Some have suggested ideas to help lawmakers get their work done on time.
A week after the regular session ended, Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, proposed setting a new deadline for legislative leaders to deliver budget “targets” to the House-Senate conference committees that negotiate the final deals. Lawmakers set deadlines for passing policy and budget bills, she said, and adding a cut-off date for spending limits would improve the process.
“No one benefits when the leaders put together huge spending bills in the final days of the session behind closed doors,” Nelson said. “Adding this deadline would put pressure on the leadership and governor to set budget targets in time for the full Legislature and, more importantly, the public to thoroughly review what is in these bills.”
Veteran Senate Finance Committee Chairman Richard Cohen, DFL-St. Paul, said another deadline might help, but given legislators’ “tendency to procrastinate, we’d have the same problem with that deadline.”
Cohen said he thinks part of the solution is to “go back to an open, transparent conference committee process where things are done in public.” Conference committees are where three to five members from each chamber meet to resolve differences between bills passed by House and Senate, and craft the final versions.
“We’ve become incredibly lazy relative to the conference committee process,” Cohen said. As a result, he said, more of those committees write the final bills in private and then present them to other lawmakers and the public as a “fait accompli” that they have no option but to accept.
If those committees were required to assemble their bills in open meetings, he said, other legislators, the governor and the public would have a chance to react to proposals.
A more fundamental flaw in the process is it allows members to offer an unlimited number of bills, amendments and floor speeches that overload the Legislature’s schedule, said Rep. Gene Pelowski, DFL-Winona.
“We can’t keep putting an infinite amount of input into a finite system,” Pelowski said. “The current system is producing bad results - dangerous results, actually - because some of this legislation becomes laws that don’t work and still run the state.”
As chairman of the House Government Operations Committee in 2008, Pelowski held hearings and issued a report that proposed 85 recommendations to improve the way the Legislature operates. A few were adopted, but most were ignored.
Pelowski said that report still offers a framework for reform.
“Obviously, we aren’t going to adopt all the recommendations,” he said, “but certainly, we need to start systematically changing how this process is working.”
His proposals include:
- Limiting the number of bills a member can introduce.
- Setting time limits on floor debates.
- Setting a deadline for bill introductions.
- Strictly enforcing deadlines for policy and budget committees to act.
And like Nelson, Pelowski proposed setting deadlines for leaders to issue budget targets.
He said his ideas have received “very mixed reactions” from other legislators.
“Some want to put in all the bills they wish,” he said. “But we need to focus on the bills that make Minnesota work. Unfortunately, ‘no’ is not in our vocabulary.”
One reason it was harder for legislators to get things done this year is that DFLers and Republicans split control of the two chambers.
Before the session, some leaders predicted divided control would lead to more compromise and prevent excesses that can occur with one-party rule. But because the partisan division has widened and many lawmakers consider compromise a dirty word, divided control has resulted in more gridlock.
Despite the obstacles, former House Republican Speaker Steve Sviggum suggested two steps to streamline legislative sessions.
First, he proposed eliminating one house of the Legislature. “If we had a unicameral Legislature, it would end the fights between the House and Senate on the final night of the session,” he said.
Second, he would apply the state’s open-meeting law to what are now closed-door budget negotiations between the governor and legislative leaders. “It would force them to be more reasonable and not take outrageous positions,” he said.
Sviggum said the two steps would simplify and improve the legislative process and increase its accountability.
“Are they going to happen? Probably not,” he said.
Former Senate DFL Majority Leader Roger Moe said there’s a limit to what procedural changes can fix.
After a partial state government shutdown in 2005, a Minneapolis think tank recruited Moe and former state Republican Party Chairman Chris Georgacas to co-chair a panel to devise recommendations for reforming the budget-making process.
When they completed their report, Moe ran it past longtime Senate Counsel Peter Wattson. “Peter told me, ‘You can pass laws; you can pass amendments to the constitution; you can write all the rules you want, but if you don’t have reasonable people working on this process, it doesn’t make any difference what you do,’ ” he said.
Current legislative leaders said the public isn’t clamoring for big changes. The tumultuous end to this year’s session was “pretty typical,” said House Majority Leader Joyce Peppin, R-Rogers.
“I think it’s human nature to wait to the end to get things done,” she said. What’s more important, she said, is “we got it done.”
While Peppin, the House Rules Committee chairwoman, is open to ideas for reform, she said, “I’m not sure that changing the system would have produced a different result.”
The St. Paul Pioneer Press is a partner of Forum News Service.