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First Reading: Hammering out an agreement

Published (5/8/2009)
By Lee Ann Schutz
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Members of the capital investment conference committee listen to Finance Commissioner Tom Hanson explain Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s position on the House and Senate bonding proposal April 27. (Photo by Tom Olmscheid)Even though House and Senate majorities are from the same political party, it doesn’t mean agendas are similar or they agree on how things should be done. Just like a family, differences can cause angst and stand in the way of compromise.

Take for example how the House and Senate DFL differ in their proposals to balance the 2010-2011 biennial budget and dig the state out of a $4.6 billion hole. These differences filter down to the various finance committees and the bills passed to fund the various state agencies and programs.

If a piece of legislation has any chance of making it to the last stop, the governor’s desk, the House and Senate have to agree on what’s being sent.

Bring on a conference committee.

Public’s work in public

A bill’s path to law isn’t smooth, nor is it meant to be. Let’s say that a bill passes the House and the Senate agrees with most of the language, but wants to include other provisions. Conference committees are the mechanism in the legislative process for reaching compromise.

Some longtime House members have been frustrated with process transparency, especially during the last days of session when closed-door negotiations between leadership and the governor have been the norm. But this year, there are some efforts to bring transparency and negotiation power back to the conference committees.

Rep. Gene Pelowski Jr. (DFL-Winona) led a two-year effort to make state government more accessible and open to the public. He saw some fruits of his labor this year with adoption of some recommendations into the House Rules, which govern the way the House operates, including more negotiations being completed in public on at least some finance bills.

“Both the House and Senate have made changes to allow every aspect of the conference committee process to be done in full view of the public, Pelowski said.” However, there are still problems with amendments being offered on the House floor that were never introduced as a bill or heard in committee, he said.

The new changes aren’t lost on Rep. Mary Ellen Otremba (DFL-Long Prairie), who has served on several agriculture-related conference committees in her seven terms. “It feels different this year,” she said. As a member of the omnibus agriculture and veterans finance conference committee, she said that in the past, the spending targets were pretty much carved in stone. But this year, given room to negotiate, “We really talked about the issues; there was a lot more transparency.”

Creating the team

There’s no formula used by House leadership in the conference committee appointment process. However, House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher (DFL-Mpls) says that it certainly “shouldn’t take a member six years before they get their chance to serve on a conference committee, like it did me.”

She takes recommendations from the committee chairs, but looks for people who are familiar with the issues, served on the committee and support the bill. But “extra factors” can come into play. Take, for example, the appointment of House Minority Leader Marty Seifert (R-Marshall) to the taxes conference committee.

“I got put on the conference committee under duress,” Seifert said.

He has been adamantly opposed to the proposed tax bill and has often referred to his new position as one on the “tax increase conference committee.”

Kelliher defends her choice and said he clearly understands the issues, as well as the governor’s position. “He is an excellent communicator and is the best person to bring an understanding to his caucus.”

This year, a sixth person was appointed to each of the major conference committees — it could be a person serving their first term. Although they have no voting privileges, it allows them a chance to get familiar with the process, Kelliher said.

Taking ownership in the bill

For many House minority members on a conference committee, it can be a time to lay party affiliation aside and take ownership in the bill language the member is charged to confer.

Rep. Pat Garofalo (R-Farmington) is a first-time conferee, and has been appointed to the omnibus E-12 education finance conference committee.

“The House has a great team,” he said, referring to members and staff. “We’ve got some really smart people with a strong understanding of school finance. That’s a big asset in terms of negotiating House versus Senate positions moving forward in the conference process.”

Besides, he added, “the House K-12 bill is just plain better. By any objective measurement the House bill is clearly superior.”

Garofalo smiled when asked if he and other members had a specific role to play at the table.

“Every member of every team has their own strengths and weaknesses,” he said. “The strength the House team has is that we universally despise the Senate bill. It transcends political party and geography.”

But for some members, the process of conferring bills can be a frustrating because they are forced to watch months of their hard work being scrutinized, challenged and sometimes sacrificed for the sake of compromise.

“You feel like now we’ve finally got a position we can all live with, and then you have to turn around and try to defend that position against someone else who’s come to an equally solidified view of their side,” said Rep. Mike Obermueller (DFL-Eagan).

Obermueller, a freshman lawmaker, participated as a non-voting member of the omnibus economic development finance conference committee

Rep. Karen Clark (DFL-Mpls), who sat on the same conference committee, and

chairs the House division responsible for setting the Housing Finance Agency’s budget, saw much of her hard work erased, as conferees agreed to force the agency to take budget cuts that Clark had tried hard to prevent.

We had funded affordable housing much more adequately in the House bill,” Clark said. “The fact that they cut housing was very hard for me to take.”

New role for old commission

Kelliher has been a major advocate for transparency, and has used the Legislative Commission on Planning and Fiscal Policy as the portal for helping to take the mystery out of fiscal negotiations.

With at least weekly public meetings — and now daily, as the adjournment gets closer — Senate and House leadership along with the governor’s chief negotiator, Finance Commissioner Tom Hanson, have been explaining terminology, digging through and comparing numbers, and at times, gotten into gritty give-and-take.

Kelliher has said that fiscal transparency will help the public understand the tough decisions lawmakers must make.

Pelowski hedged, however, “Session is not over, so it is too early to predict if the push to have the public participation and understand the positions of the House, Senate and governor will continue to the end of session.”

He cautions about the too often negative consequences of “closed door deal-making,” and that pressure needs to continue for an open process. “It will need constant monitoring and improvement. Without it, three people in the governor’s office will be deciding issues with no public input.”

Session Weekly staffers Nick Busse, Kris Berggren, Susan Hegarty and Sonja Hegman contributed to this article.

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