Gene Pelowski: With 4,000 bills introduced, state needs legislative reform
Monday marked the 95th day of the 2015-2016 legislative session. We will end this week with the 4,000th bill being introduced in the Minnesota House.
Minnesota's constitution allows the Legislature to be in session only 120 days over each two-year period, known as a biennium. The first, odd year of the biennium is the longer of the two and is reserved for the entire biennial budget, whereas the second, even year is shorter and reserved for housekeeping and capital projects known as bonding.
May 18, 2015, was the 65th and last legislative day in the long budget year where 2,377 bills had been introduced. The 4,000th bill introduced in this year's short, nonbudget session, which began March 8, marks 1,623 bills being introduced this year alone, and the session is not over.
A part-time legislature cannot input infinite items into a finite process and expect anything other than a breakdown. The increasingly common occurrence of special sessions, such as the one that was needed in 2015, is evidence of such a breakdown.
Members of the Legislature introduce bills as if the mere introduction and press release or press conference actually accomplishes something. Of the 134 members of the House, there is a wide disparity in the number of bills introduced. And this isn't a partisan problem.
The 10 with the most bills are: Reps. Nick Zerwas, R-Elk River, with 102 bills; Joe Mullery, DFL-Minneapolis, 90 bills; Greg Davids, R-Preston, 81 bills; Duane Quam, R-Byron, 69 bills; Joe Atkins, DFL-Inver Grove Heights, 63 bills; Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton, 60 bills; Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, 60 bills; Rena Moran, DFL-Saint Paul, 58 bills; Jeff Howe, R-Rockville, 52 bills; and Tony Albright, R-Prior Lake, 51 bills.
The 10 with the least bills are: Reps. Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, with one bill; Joyce Peppin, R-Rogers, three bills; Gene Pelowski, DFL-Winona, four bills; Chad Anderson, R-Bloomington, six bills; Peggy Flanagan, DFL-St. Louis Park, nine bills; Michael Nelson, DFL-Brooklyn Park, nine bills; Barb Yarusso, DFL-Shoreview, nine bills; Jon Koznick, R-Lakeville, 10 bills; Sandra Masin, DFL-Eagan, 10 bills; and John Considine, DFL-Mankato, 11 bills.
In 2007 and 2008, as the chairman of the House Government Operations and Reform Committee, I held eight hearings on reforming Minnesota's legislative process. The hearings were open to every member of the House. Testimony was taken from National Council of State Legislatures, Revisor's Office, Government Relations Representatives, legislators, the public and the Minnesota Newspaper Association.
Working with a representative of NCSL comparing Minnesota's legislative process to the other 49 states, a series of proposed recommendations were made in a report to the House. The full report can be accessed on the House website at http://tinyurl.com/MNLegReform.
Two of those recommendations were adopted and included as part of the House rules. The first in 2009-2010 limited floor debate on bills to prevent going into the late evening or early morning when the public was not aware of what was happening to the legislation. The second in 2013-2014 was required that amendments to bills be filed and posted on the House website 24 hours in advance of a floor debate so the public could be aware of how the bills were going to be changed.
Other recommendations based on what other states have adopted include:
• Limiting the number of bills a legislator can introduce. As few as six bills are all a legislator may introduce in some states.
• Stopping the introduction of bills at a certain point, such as after committee hearings cease, in order to allow legislators, staff and the Revisor's Office to focus their full attention on bills and budgets before the Legislature.
• Setting funding and budget targets as early as possible so committees have a complete understanding of the impact of these budget targets on education, health and human services, transportation and other essential services Minnesota provides.
• Limiting the number of committees legislators serve on so they can gain a thorough understanding of the issues and budgets of these committees. NCSL recommended serving on no more than three committees.
• Requiring the Legislature and its committees not meet past midnight and this rule cannot be suspended.
It's clear that our part-time Legislature is under enormous stress due to a system awash in bills and deals made in the back room or the dead of night due to archaic rules. Minnesota leads the nation on many important fronts from civic engagement, job growth and college entrance exams.
Now, it's time our Legislature reforms itself to better serve Minnesotans in the 21st century. This election year, legislative reform should be among the issues voters use to decide who returns to represent them in St. Paul.
Gene Pelowski, a Democrat from Winona, represents District 28A in the Minnesota House of Representatives. He can be reached by phone at 651-296-8637 or by email at email@example.com.