Making sausage in St. Paul: From omnibus bills to poison pills

mct state capitol

Laws are like sausages: it’s better not to watch them being made. So goes a venerable quote that, like many venerable quotes, has disputed origins. The truth remains: sausage-making is a messy business, and so is legislating. As the 2017 Minnesota legislative session draws closer to its end, the sausage-making mess is on full and awful display.

By now, bills have either been approved by committees, or they are dead for this session.

Omnibus bills

After House and Senate committees have considered lots of bills, many get crammed into larger, more comprehensive bills on a single subject. The opposite of an omnibus bill is a “stand-alone” bill.

The state constitution requires that each omnibus bill address only a single topic (Article IV, Section 17), but some of the subjects are pretty broad: the “Omnibus public safety and security policy and finance bill,” for example. This covers courts, public safety, firefighters, corrections, crime, disaster assistance, and controlled substances – and that’s just the first three lines of the 36-line introductory paragraph of an omnibus bill that looks to me to be more than 100 pages.

Over at MinnPost, Brianna Biersbach put together an excellent primer on omnibus bills. She notes that these bills are also sometimes called garbage bills — because of everything that is thrown into them — or Christmas tree bills, because they have something for everyone.

Logrolling is another colorful description of omnibus bills, meaning that the omnibus bill contains several smaller bills, none of which would likely pass on its own. Once they are combined in an omnibus bill, however, the total number of legislators supporting different parts of the bill combines to make a majority and pass the bill.

If you are logrolling a bill, you might be tempted to hide a woodchuck in it. That’s a controversial piece of legislation that would never pass on its own, but might slide by unnoticed in an omnibus bill with dozens of provisions and hundreds of pages of small print.

A poison pill is, in one way, the opposite of a woodchuck. A poison pill is something that legislators will absolutely vote against (or that the Governor will absolutely veto). Put it in an omnibus bill, and you can defeat the whole bill.

If you think this sounds like a political game of chicken, you’re right.

One possible poison pill: delaying or watering down buffer strip protection for streams and ditches. If the legislature puts this in the environment omnibus bill – will the governor veto the entire bill because of this one provision? The Star Tribune reported a pretty strong statement:

“Not negotiable,” Dayton said at a news conference last week. “I’ll veto any bill that has any gutting or delay in the buffers” law, he said.

Republicans still plan to include delay of the buffer strips in an omnibus bill, and to suspend other water quality regulations and cut funding for environmental agencies.

Conference committee

After the House and Senate both pass bills that are on roughly the same topic, the bills go to a conference committee made up of House and Senate members. These committees work out the differences between the two bills, making compromises and agreeing on identical language. That, at least, is the theory. But sometimes the conference committees take out parts that both houses have already passed or insert parts that neither house has passed. That’s also part of the sausage-making.

After the conference committee comes up with final language, the bill goes back to the House and the Senate to pass or fail.

And sometimes the legislature really fails – as they did last year, failing to pass a bonding and transportation bill in the last 15 minutes of the session.

Next stop: the Governor

If the bill passes both houses, it goes to the governor. The governor can sign the bill into law or veto it.

With a stand-alone bill that decision is not too complicated, though it may have strong political consequences.

With an omnibus bill, the decision to sign or veto can be tough. What if most of the provisions are good, or at least acceptable, but there’s one provision that works as a poison pill?

For example, the House public safety omnibus bill includes harsher penalties for protesters and support for re-opening the private prison in Appleton.. Last year, Governor Mark Dayton said he would veto plans to re-open and lease the Appleton prison. Would one or both of these provisions mean a veto for the omnibus bill?

After the veto

If the governor vetoes a bill, the legislature could overturn his veto and still make the bill law. That, however, requires a two-thirds majority in both houses, which is not likely to happen this year. Instead, the legislature could reconsider the bill and pass a version that the governor would sign.

Of course, that only works if there is some time left in the session. Last year, the bonding bill came in at the last minute and was vetoed after the session ended, because of a $100 million drafting error. Dayton and the Republican legislative leadership never came to an agreement on a special session – so no tax cut bill in 2016.

This year? Stay tuned – the legislature still has until the Monday after the third Saturday in May to finish its work.

For more information:

Everything you need to know about omnibus bills, and why they’re so popular at the Minnesota Legislature (MinnPost, 3/31/17)

Frequently asked questions about the Minnesota Legislature (Minnesota State Legislature web page)

Republicans want to reshape environmental protection, meeting stiff DFL resistance (Star Tribune, 3/29/17)

Omnibus public safety bill gets House OK; returns to Senate (Session Daily, 4/3/17)

Minn. GOP lawmakers look to reopen, lease private prison (Star Tribune, 1/12/17)


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