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At Issue: Taming the ‘Wild West’

Published (5/30/2008)
By Brian Hogenson
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Rep. Gene Pelowski Jr. (DFL-Winona) has witnessed what he views as a deterioration of the legislative process during his 11 terms, leaving the House considerably less effective.

“I would argue we have one committee left. The House floor, and that’s where all our work is done.”

As a response to what he and other members see as an inefficient legislative process, wrought with late night floor sessions and stacks of amendments that rise like skyscrapers on the chief clerk’s desk, the House Governmental Operations, Reform, Technology and Elections Committee and other interested members plan to create a report during the interim on legislative process reform with rules and procedural changes for the 2009 Legislature to consider. Pelowski chairs the committee.

Rep. Kathy Tingelstad (R-Andover), who previously chaired the committee, said new legislators come to the Capitol with fresh ideas. “It’s to our advantage to grab hold of those ideas and make the Capitol the best place possible for doing the work of the people of Minnesota.”

Pelowski said the process currently being carried out on the House floor “can’t be the final product.”



Staff under pressure

Patrick McCormack, director of the nonpartisan House Research Department, said the likelihood of errors by department staff goes up as a result of trying to meet the increasing needs of members on the floor and in committee. He said a Legislature that is swamped with amendments and bill drafts may appear to be doing more, but actually is doing less.

He cited the omnibus supplemental budget bill as an example, whereby his office prepared 187 amendments and the Office of the Revisor of Statutes prepared another 81. Not all were offered.

“If each amendment was given 10 minutes of debate, this would require 2,680 minutes of floor time, 44.66 hours, just under two entire days of floor session.”

Michelle Timmons, director of the Office of the Revisor of Statutes, outlined ways that legislators could help their staff during times of heavy workloads, including leaving enough time to allow staff to do quality work, because quality drafting is largely a human endeavor, and spreading large legislation throughout the session. If numerous large documents must be produced at the same time, on a short deadline, quality control steps become a casualty of timeliness.

Pelowski said that in addition to creating a more efficient process, reform should also focus on creating a more family-friendly environment. Minnesota is one of the few state legislatures that allows the “no meeting after midnight” rule to be suspended, he said. “When we’re here until 1 a.m., the staff can be here until 4 or 5.”

Also to be examined are ways to reduce the number of conference committees. Minnesota currently uses more conference committees per session than any other state.



Possible reforms

Brenda Erickson has experienced Minnesota’s legislative process firsthand.

A program principal in the Legislative Management Program of the National Conference of State Legislatures, Erickson worked for the House from 1979-1984.

She said there are a number of ways to possibly maximize efficiency. For example, the use of debate limits during floor sessions could be used to reduce the length of floor sessions and allow for debate on more bills in a timely manner.

Unlike Minnesota, many chambers restrict how long a member may speak from five to 15 minutes. “A limit should balance the need for open and free discussion with the need to complete floor work,” Erickson said.

“We’re way out on a limb in Minnesota in regards to time limits on the floor,” Rep. Steve Simon (DFL-St. Louis Park) said. “We’re a Wild West.”

At the April 15 House Governmental Operations, Reform, Technology and Elections Committee meeting, Erickson said there is a fine balance that needs to be sought on any procedural changes to find the perfect balance of majority rule and minority rights. “Minorities tend to use parliamentary procedures to make their points because they don’t have the votes.”

Another possible reform, which would require amending the state constitution, is the convening of a special veto session after the Legislature adjourns. Several legislatures around the country reconvene a set amount of time after the session to consider bills vetoed by the governor. This reform would effectively eliminate the governor’s pocket veto power — inaction on a bill that leaves it in limbo until it expires after the end of session.

The use of more stringent deadline systems could possibly be used to reduce the end-of-session logjam that has become an almost annual event at the Capitol.

According to Erickson, logjams come at the end of session because many issues require a good deal of time to resolve, are complex or controversial. She said the essential bargaining process should occur in stages that offer a reasonable amount of time for both study and compromise.

Other possible reforms Erickson outlined are: limiting the number of bills members may introduce, prohibiting bills that have been defeated from being reintroduced as bills or an amendment during the same biennium, and using existing standing committees for performing interim work.



Future outlook

Pelowski said the report recommendations would provide the Legislature with a chance at a fresh start, unprecedented in his 22 years at the Capitol.

While she is glad that Pelowski’s committee is looking for reform, Tingelstad said the reality is that changes are typically made incrementally.

Days before the Legislature adjourned, with a bipartisan deal in place to balance the state’s budget, she said the outcome of the legislative session could pave the way for broader reform.

According to Tingelstad, who vividly remembers the fallout from the partial government shutdown of 2005, members and the public were watching the end of this session with an eye on the process and whether the Legislature could reach a budget deal and get their work done on time in an orderly fashion. If not, Tingelstad said it would be more likely to motivate people to come back next year willing to make substantial changes to the legislative process.

Tingelstad, who is not seeking reelection, introduced a bill the last week of session that would have changed legislative terms. Under the provisions of her bill, which she calls her “final statement,” House members would serve staggered four-year terms and senators would serve staggered six-year terms.

“The point is that reelection impacts legislative policy as much as legislative decision making at the Capitol,” Tingelstad said.

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