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Legislative News and Views - Rep. Steve Elkins (DFL)

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End of Session Update

Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Dear Neighbors,

While the House is formally adjourned, I’m still doing the people’s work today, but my office venue has changed:


I allowed myself to sleep in this morning, and, like most of my colleagues, I’m taking the day to reflect upon how this session has played out. This is my fourth year in the legislature. Every year I look back and tell myself “Surely it can’t get any worse than this”. But the reality has been that each year has, in fact, been worse than the previous year. The process is broken.

Towards the end of my freshman session in 2019, I quickly discovered that, even if you hadn’t been appointed to a particular subject area conference committee, you could still attend the conference committee meetings in person, and when one of your bills would come up for discussion, you could come to the testifier’s table, answer questions about your bill and participate in the discussion. This is how I got my bill allowing cities to lower their speed limits in residential neighborhoods passed as part of the Transportation bill that year. When Covid hit in 2020, the opportunity for non-conferees to defend their bills in person during conference committee discussions was lost, but I was a member of the Transportation conference committee and could be at the table. At the end of the 2021 session, only the committee chairs were allowed to be at the table. This year, at the Senate’s insistence, the individual subject area bills were smooshed together into mega-omnibus bills (for example State Government, Elections, Transportation, and Pensions were combined into one conference committee) and only committee chairs and minority leads were allowed to be members of the conference committee. The final bill provisions were negotiated among the chairs and their staff behind closed doors and presented to the formal conference committees to be rubber stamped. 

Every year since I became a member, participation in the crafting of the final bills has become increasingly limited. If you are a member of the Democratic minority in the Senate or the Republican minority in the House, it is very unlikely that your bill will even receive a hearing in that chamber. Thus, when the House and Senate bills are compared at the beginning of the conference committee process, the forward-thinking proposals we passed in the House are shown to be in stark contrast to the Senate proposals. Because there is no common basis for discussion at the beginning of the negotiations, the discussions quickly founder, and stalemate inevitably ensues.

Knowing this, I always find a Republican senator to co-author my bills in the hopes that my partners will be able to secure a hearing for the bills in the Senate. I work with Sen. Rich Draheim on my Housing and Healthcare Pricing Transparency bills (one of which, related to drug prices, actually had support from the ultraconservative Center for the American Experiment); Sen. John Jasinski on Transportation and Local Government bills (he’s my co-author on the bill to reform the Driver and Vehicle Services processes and fee structure to enable the reopening of a driver's license bureau in Bloomington); and I work with Sen. Mark Koran on information technology reforms as part of a bipartisan and bicameral IT coalition that includes Sen. Melissa Wiklund and Reps. Kristin Bahner (D) and Jim Nash (R). However, this year, Senate committee chairs were told to minimize the number of bills that they heard so that, come conference committee time, it would appear that the House wanted everything, while the Senate wanted nothing -- the theory being that this would strengthen the Senate’s bargaining position. (We know this because several Republican senators were vocally unhappy with this strategy -- they had bills they wanted to pass, too!)

One of the consequences of this strategy was that the Senate committee chairs cloistered in these closed-door meetings had no way of knowing which provisions in the House bills had support from their Republican colleagues. The prime example of this was a building code-related provision which I had developed with the encouragement of Sen. Draheim. This provision was included in the House Department of Labor and Industry bill – and was rejected in that conference committee by his colleague, Sen. Eric Pratt. Similarly, funding for long-overdue upgrades to the State’s basic administrative IT systems (accounting, budgeting, HR, etc.) which was backed by the entire bipartisan IT conference, was rejected by Senate chair Mary Kiffmeyer in the State Government conference committee.

The process is, in fact, broken. Our world has become too complicated for us to address within the amount of time allotted to us by the State Constitution under the deliberative process contemplated by the drafters of our Constitution. Over 5,000 bills were introduced this past session. Many of those bills were drafted at the behest of lobbyists, who then shop their bills among legislators until they can find one who will introduce the bill for them. (One possible reform would be to require lobbyists to secure a legislator’s support before having a bill drafted by legislative staff.)

For example, a bill on consumer data privacy came to me from a lobbyist for Microsoft at the end of the 2019 session. As I dove into the issue in preparation for the 2020 session, I realized that this was far more complicated than the Microsoft lobbyist had led me to believe. The third draft of that bill received an informational hearing last fall which resulted in an outpouring of additional valuable feedback which will be reflected in a fourth version of that bill, which will be introduced next January. This fourth version will bear little resemblance to the original 2019 version (I told the Microsoft guy that “this isn’t your bill, anymore”). In a way, this is the way legislating should work. You identify a problem which requires a legislative solution – and consumer data privacy is certainly such a problem; you research the issue; draft a proposed bill to address the problem; subject that bill to public scrutiny through the legislative hearing process; which generates refinements to the bill; hopefully resulting in a law that is both practical and effective. However, in this example, such a bill would probably require multiple hearings in both the Commerce committee and the Judiciary and Civil Law committee, each of which is allotted no more than two 90 minute hearing slots per week from mid-January through the mid-March committee deadline for all policy bills (the hearings start in February in even numbered years), and each of these committees will have literally hundreds of bills in their queues waiting to be heard. Needless to say, the chairs of these two committees were not able to grant me a hearing on the current draft of this bill, this year. They simply had too many bills to hear to grant any single bill an entire 90 minute hearing (which wouldn’t have been enough, in this case).

To a significant degree, our current dysfunctional processes, under which roughly the last month of each session is devoted to secretive backroom discussions among a handful of committee chairs and legislative leaders, is a result of this pressure to pack more and more policy into fewer and fewer (and larger and larger) omnibus bills which must be passed by the third Sunday in May. Having a divided legislature (Minnesota and Virginia are the only states in the country with divided legislatures) only compounds the problem.

I don’t know if having a full-time legislature is the answer. As a practical matter, being “otherwise retired,” I am effectively a full-time legislator. When we’re not in session, I spend most of my time conducting policy research and stakeholder outreach related to the bills which I am developing for the next session. The first week in June, I will be attending a three-day beginning engineering class in street design (at my own expense) to prepare for a discussion with County engineers over a bill which would give counties the same discretion to set speed limits that I won for the cities back in 2019. The last week in June I will be attending a national conference on the state-of-the-art of mileage-based road charges (courtesy of the National Conference of State Legislatures) to improve my legislation on that subject. But it doesn’t matter how much time I spend between sessions on legislative research and development if there’s not going to be enough time available in the legislative calendar for the resulting bills to receive the vetting that they need and deserve as part of the normal legislative hearing process. We simply need a longer window to hear bills as part of the normal hearing process.

Current Status

We are putting together a summary of where we stand right now, which will be sent out in the next day or so. A few bills have actually passed, which include important policy provisions. The bills which were not passed before adjournment include:

  • Taxes: There is an agreement on a tax bill which would result in the largest tax cut in state history – almost $4 billion over three years. It includes just about everything that was described in my summary of the House tax bill a week or so ago, and more, including a complete exemption of all Social Security income from State income taxation. However, this would be the final bill to be passed if a special session is called.

The conference committee chairs have not yet reached agreement on:

  • K-12 Education ($1 billion has been allotted and most of it will probably go to funding the currently unfunded mandate to provide special education services.)
  • Health & Human Services ($1 billion has been allotted, much of which will be spent on attracting more workers into direct care professions to relieve current worker shortages)
  • Public Safety ($450 million has been allotted.) There are many policy differences between the House and Senate. Note: The Senate has rejected the House bill to make possession of a used catalytic converter a crime.)
  • Transportation ($846 million has been allotted.) There are disagreements over the source of the funding and the allocation between roads and transit.) Negotiators on both sides are highly motivated to pass a bill that allows the state to tap into its full share of funding under the federal infrastructure act (IIJA).

The Governor will not call a special session until there is an agreement on final bill language in each of these subject areas. There are some negotiations occurring but in other cases conferees have decided to take a few days off to “chill out” before returning to the negotiating table.

We will keep you posted.

Town Hall Postponed

The town hall which was planned for this Thursday is POSTPONED. We will wait until we finish a special session to ensure it will be most informative to community members. Thanks for your patience!

town hall postpone

Keep in Touch

Don’t hesitate to reach out if I can provide any assistance. Please follow me on my Facebook page for further updates and invite your friends and family to do so as well. 

Thanks for the honor of representing you at the Capitol. 


Steve Elkins
Representative, District 49B
Minnesota House of Representatives

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