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Minnesota Legislature

Subcommittee debates proposed reforms to the legislative process

The House Chamber in the State Capitol. A House subcommittee on Tuesday discussed potential reforms to the legislative process. House Photography file photo

After meetings in early July and late September examining how the legislative process operates, members of the House Subcommittee on Legislative Process Reform met Tuesday to discuss ideas for how it might be improved.

Subcommittee members, along with other House members who chose to participate, spent more than 90 minutes weighing eight potential reforms, including deadline and rule changes meant to ensure the Legislature ends its sessions on time, with balanced budgets.

“It’s going to take a series of things to get our work done on time and in a fashion that’s best for the people of Minnesota,” said Rep. Gene Pelowski, Jr. (DFL-Winona), the subcommittee chair.

The proposed reforms on the subcommittee’s agenda were:

1. What forecast to use: November forecast vs. February forecast;
2. Timing of the Budget Resolution: Rule 4.03b;
3. Conference committee week and other methods by which to promote the orderly work of conference committees;
4. Conference committee reports and concurrences: how much time should they sit at the desk before they can be taken up?;
5. Deadlines: looking at Joint Rule 2.03 and/or creating additional deadlines in House rules;
6. Discouraging policy provisions in budget bills;
7. Base budgeting; and
8. Zero-base budgeting.

There was general agreement that policy provisions should not be included in budget bills, and that suspension of a House Rule during the final weekend of session, which requires conference committee reports to be posted online for 12 hours before voting, is harmful to the process.

But other ideas provoked more debate.

House Subcommittee on Legislative Process Reform 11/12/19

Members discussed whether relying on an earlier forecast to begin the state’s budgeting process would save time or sacrifice efficiency. Each November, Minnesota Management and Budget releases an economic forecast that lawmakers use to begin shaping the state’s budget. But the process doesn’t really take shape until the following February when MMB releases an updated forecast near the end of the month that provides the financial numbers used to reach a final agreement.

Several members questioned whether the budgeting process could be improved by entering into serious discussions sooner, rather than waiting for the updated numbers.

Rep. Linda Runbeck (R-Circle Pines) said valuable time is wasted at the beginning of the session. But Rep. Jeanne Poppe (DFL-Austin) said a greater reliance on the November forecast may make the process run more smoothly, but could also make it less effective if decisions are made based on economic data and assumptions that are soon shown to have changed.

However, Poppe did express interest in Runbeck’s suggestion that the House Rules might be modified to better set forth committee and division agendas, and what each must do, rather than leaving all of those decisions up to the discretion of the respective chairs.

Lawmakers agree that meeting the self-imposed deadlines for House committees and for conference committees to finish their work was crucial if the process is to function smoothly but conceded there isn’t a lot they can do if legislative leaders choose to violate those deadlines.

And Rep. Dave Pinto (DFL-St. Paul) said the deadline that’s been most consistently missed in recent years is the Legislature’s annual date of adjournment, by when lawmakers are supposed to have completed their work. He said the need for special sessions is a symptom of the broader divide in society that makes reaching agreements “much more difficult.”

Next steps

Although no action was taken Tuesday, Pelowski said he plans to hold another meeting where many of these proposals will be considered after having been formatted by staff as potential rules changes. Pelowski will invite House Speaker Melissa Hortman (DFL-Brooklyn Park) to attend.  

Pelowski said he would then like to submit them as recommendations to the House Rules and Legislative Administration Committee.

“[Reform] is going to happen with the collective body of the House making some decisions and probably some difficult decisions,” Pelowski said.

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