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At Issue: ‘Garbage’ or good legislation?

Published (4/11/2008)
By Brian Hogenson
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Gone are the days when every bill was brought before the House on an individual basis for debate and a vote. Large omnibus bills are becoming the norm for steering a committee’s bills toward the governor’s desk, raising questions of legality and good government in the process.

“Omnibus bills are inherently bad for policy making and good decision making all around,” Rep. Mark Olson (IR-Big Lake), adding they “guarantee bad government” and can have a bad effect on the legislative process even in the years after they are passed.

“Many people complain how often we have to come back to fix legislation that we just passed the year before,” he said. “I’ve noticed, numerous times those legislative repairs are needed for laws created by omnibus bills and the lack of scrutiny they receive for each of the many policy provisions in them.”

In Olson’s view, on top of being bad government, omnibus bills are often illegal. He cites the state constitution that states: “No law shall embrace more than one subject which shall be expressed in its title.”

Before the turn of the 20th century, the Minnesota Supreme Court struck down 11 laws it found to violate the single-subject requirement. Since that time, the court has struck down another six, the last one occurring in 2000 with the case of Associated Builders and Contractors v. Ventura. That case stemmed from the Omnibus Tax Bill of 1997, specifically the provision requiring school districts to pay prevailing wages on any construction project estimated to cost more than $100,000.

The 2003 “concealed carry” law didn’t make it to the state’s highest judicial body for a ruling. A Ramsey Court District judge ruled that by amending the language to a Department of Natural Resources bill, the law was unconstitutional. The Minnesota Court of Appeals later agreed. A different “concealed carry” law was passed on its own in 2005.

All or nothing

The omnibus bill that has generated the most debate this session is HF1812, a bill to resolve the state’s projected budget deficit. Critics say the bill violates the “one bill, one subject” constitutional provision and it contains too many policy provisions.

Rep. Lyndon Carlson (DFL-Crystal), the bill sponsor, notes that it sets out to resolve the state’s projected $935 million budget deficit, as well as resolving projected deficits into the next biennium. “There is a long history of omnibus budget balancing bills that have as the single issue the budget and the balancing of the budget.”

Rep. Phyllis Kahn (DFL-Mpls), chairwoman of the House State Government Finance Division, said that with 11 finance divisions, it makes sense to combine their budget recommendations into one bill.

Having some policy in omnibus finance bills is OK as long as it’s linked to the financial policy, according to Rep. Michael Paymar (DFL-St. Paul), chairman of the House Public Safety Finance Division. “Some of what went into the budget bill is probably just policy. That’s something we need to be concerned about.”

Kahn noted that for 15 years, pension bills have been put together into an omnibus bill made up of the work done by the Legislative Commission on Pensions and Retirement. Without the omnibus bill, she says, enormous amounts of time would be spent discussing numerous bills.

“Nobody has ever suggested that it’s unconstitutional,” Kahn said. “No one has ever suggested that we go back to individual pension bills.”

Rep. Mindy Greiling (DFL-Roseville), chairwoman of the House K-12 Finance Division, has put together omnibus bills in the past and says that abiding by “one bill, one subject” is the key to a good bill.

She believes that if the House were to approve education bills individually the available funding would run dry quickly. By having education bills grouped together in an omnibus bill it is easier for the House members and those serving on conference committees to keep the total fiscal impact of education legislation in perspective.

Greiling would like to see and end to the so-called “garbage bills,” like this year’s supplemental budget. She said having bills that large with both fiscal and policy provisions included makes it tough for the average citizen to follow the legislative process.

“The average citizen doesn’t have that kind of time,” she said. “We should want the public to know what we are doing here because we get a better result.”

For Rep. Gene Pelowski Jr. (DFL-Winona), chairman of the House Governmental Operations, Reform, Technology and Elections Committee, the issue goes beyond whether omnibus bills are a good idea. He has witnessed a deterioration of the legislative process under DFL and Republican leadership of the House, calling it a “bipartisan debacle.”

In the past, Pelowski says, HF1812 would have been broken up into its various sections and voted on as separate bills.

During the 14 hours of floor debate on the bill, 62 amendments were introduced, which Pelowski said should have been taken care of during the committee process.

The current way of doing things not only makes it impossible for the public to know what is in these bills, according to Pelowski, but creates a heavy burden for the House staff who draft the bills and amendments, which facilitates errors.

“It’s a disservice to the public,” Pelowski said.

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