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Minnesota Legislature

Legislative powers

Published (4/8/2010)
By Patty Ostberg
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Rep. Lyndon Carlson Sr. (DFL-Crystal) thinks legislators could have acted more quickly to pass a comprehensive transportation bill after the Interstate 35W bridge collapse in 2007, and provided state assistance when flooding happened in southern Minnesota last year.

However, they couldn’t because they weren’t called into a special session.

Sponsored by Carlson, HF2577 would ask voters this November if legislators should be able to call themselves into special session. Currently, only the governor can call a special session.

Approved March 18 by the House State Government Finance Division, the bill awaits action by the House Finance Committee, which Carlson chairs.

The proposed constitutional amendment would allow the Legislature to convene for seven legislative days after written agreement by the president and majority leader of the Senate, speaker and majority leader of the House, and the rules committees in each body.

Carlson amended his original proposal to specify only seven days, saying it still allows for public participation while resolving issues in a timely manner.

Under current law, the Legislature can only call a special session on the first Tuesday after the first Monday more than 30 days after an attack on the state. Otherwise, the governor can call a special session upon “extraordinary occasions.”

Carlson said the change would provide better balance between the executive and legislative branches of government. “It would provide for more transparency, it would hopefully eliminate gridlock … it allows the Legislature to act promptly if we were dealing with a disaster.”

He noted that 34 other legislatures can call a special session. “In the majority of these states, the legislature rarely calls a special session. However, the ability for the legislature to call a special session would provide a balance between the branches of government and reduce the gridlock that results when governing bodies do not agree,” Carlson said.

Rep. Joyce Peppin (R-Rogers) has two problems with the proposal: minority party members are not included in calling a special session and the Legislature could potentially call several special sessions because the bill doesn’t limit the number.

Carlson said the rules committees have both minority and majority members, and requiring minority caucus authorization could lead to more gridlock. “Public opinion would probably weigh in if it appeared it was being abused,” he said.

“I don’t know why we would want to grant the Legislature carte blanche authority to take up bills at any point of time through the year,” said Rep. Keith Downey (R-Edina), adding the constitution has built-in constraints for the governor such as “extraordinary occasions.”

Downey also expressed concern that the authority would give the Legislature less incentive to be done on time; instead it could “push the deadline back, and push the deadline back, and just like any other project where you have a movable final date … people just push things off.”

Countered Carlson, “I always find it rather interesting when legislators are concerned about having greater opportunity for input. … I would think that would be something that most of us would be quite interested in, and that’s to maintain and have a good balance of power between the executive and legislative branch.”

Rep. Mary Kiffmeyer (R-Big Lake) noted there is a cost to putting the constitutional amendment on the ballot. To add one proposed amendment to optical scan ballot cards, for county auditors to program and count votes cast, and for printing and publishing the total cost is $102,000.

A companion, SF2260, sponsored by Sen. Richard Cohen (DFL-St. Paul), awaits action by the Senate Rules and Administration Committee.

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