St. Paul shenanigans make bad legislation

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Just thirteen more days in the session, and the behind-closed-doors shenanigans have begun. First, Republicans refuse to even negotiate with Governor Mark Dayton over the budget. That’s stupid, but well within the realm of hyper-partisan politicking. The real fast ones are being pulled in conference committees, out of sight of the public and sometimes even out of sight of the rest of the legislature.

As Sally Jo Sorensen writes, it’s magic:

“It’s spring, there’s magic in the air, and language now appears suddenly in Minnesota legislative conference committee, popping up overnight like the state mushroom or asparagus.”

Laws are not supposed to be made by magic. Here’s how the process is supposed to work:

Step one – House and Senate committees carefully consider bills, debate them, and finally send them to the floor, where they get debated and maybe amended some more before being passed. Some bills on the same topics get combined into omnibus bills – maybe ten or twelve or more bills combined into a higher education omnibus bill, for example.

Step two – House and Senate versions of bills frequently differ. The legislature’s web site explains:

“[A conference committee] is a committee made up of members from each house appointed to reconcile the differences between two versions of a bill that has been passed by both bodies.”

In theory, the conference committee keeps the parts of the legislation that both houses already agree on and then agrees on which differing parts of the House and Senate versions to include in the final version.

Step three – The conference committee version goes back to both House and Senate to get passed – or not. If passed it goes to the governor for signature or veto.

All of this takes time. Lots of time. And talk. Lots of talk. It’s all on public record for everyone to see. So there’s plenty of time for legislators and the public to see what’s going into bills and debate and discuss.

Except when the shenanigans begin.

This week, reports MinnPost, Republicans in the conference committee on transportation added

“all-new provisions that change the authority of two prominent metropolitan-area governing boards…  Both changes appeared in a House and Senate transportation budget bill this week, but the issues hadn’t been previously heard in committees or voted on on the floor.”

No public hearing. No floor debate. Just kind of a conference committee coup.

Which is not all that unusual, according to a Star Tribune article:

“Millions in spending provisions and hundreds of policy changes are tucked inside massive ‘omnibus’ bills that number hundreds of pages. Committee meetings are often called on a few minutes’ notice and frequently stretch into the evening. Major changes spring from closed-door meetings scheduled with no public notice, sometimes on weekends.”

That means cutting out not only the public but also the press and even other legislators, according to an article in the Rochester Post-Bulletin:

“At this stage of the session, Capitol reporters resort to dragging camping chairs up to St. Paul as they spend hours sitting outside of rooms waiting for the governor and legislative leaders to emerge. And the media aren’t the only ones shut out from the talks. Rank-and-file legislators are also left to wonder what is happening behind closed doors.

“‘Whether you are in the majority or the minority, it gets frustrating because you are cut out and your constituents are cut out. And it shouldn’t be that way,’ said Rochester DFL Rep. Tina Liebling.”

The omnibus bills now in the conference committee also have constitutional problems. As Lori Sturdevant points out:

“The ‘single-subject rule’ is Capitol shorthand for Article 4, Section 17 of the Minnesota Constitution: ‘No law shall embrace more than one subject, which shall be expressed in its title.’…

“The rule protects the governor’s veto power. Legislators know that a governor who wants to keep government operating is disinclined to veto budget bills. So, the thinking goes, load up a “must-pass” budget bill with policy provisions that the governor opposes and see if he’ll heave a sigh and sign them into law….

“This year Dayton has asked legislators repeatedly to separate policy provisions from budget bills. By Dayton’s count, this year’s bills disregard his request in 609 instances.”

So what’s in those multi-subject budget/policy hybrids now in the conference committees? Overall, Republicans want to cut public services and use the states $1.65 billion budget surplus for tax cuts.

Human Services Commissioner Emily Piper wrote to the conference committee that she disagrees with their determination “to cut human services in a year when the state has a significant budget surplus.” Worse, the “hundreds of millions of dollars” in cuts are not “honestly and transparently made.” Instead, the conference committee proposal “depends on hundreds of millions of dollars in reductions that are not validated by fiscal notes and savings that will not be realized,” resulting in “false promises because they are part of a fiscally unsound bill.”

Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie Gildea called the conference committee proposal on public safety and the justice system “deeply troubling.”

“The proposed budget would leave our district courts without enough judges to manage a rising caseload … would jeopardize our state’s drug courts, DWI courts, and veterans courts, which are effective tools for combating the rise of substance abuse …

“Jeopardizing public safety and access to justice is not ‘The Minnesota Way.'”

Education problems start at the very beginning, reports MinnPost, with “a Republican education budget that defunds voluntary pre-school education.”

Senator Richard Cohen’s Capitol Update last week said it well:

“Simply starving the budget by ripping funding from children enrolled in early learning programs, seniors who need assistance either in their homes or in an assisted living facility, individuals who are seeking justice, and the millions of other Minnesotans who benefit from the services the state provides in the name of an unsustainable tax cut is incomprehensible and immoral.”

Maybe all of the shenanigans could make a good reality TV show. But this isn’t television, it’s real life, and real lives are at stake.

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