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‘UnSession’ aims to restore original intent of annual legislative sessions

‘UnSession’ aims to restore original intent of annual legislative sessions
MinnPost photo by James Nord
Gov. Dayton said, even-year sessions should be devoted to "eliminating unnecessary or redundant laws, rules and regulations" and otherwise making state government more efficient.

Several decades ago, 7Up gave the world the “UnCola.” Gov. Mark Dayton would like to give Minnesota the “UnSession.”

In his State of the State Address, the DFL governor talked about his administration’s efforts to streamline state government and declared, “We’re not done reforming.” He challenged lawmakers to join in the reform effort by restricting the passage of new legislation in even-year legislative sessions.

Other than responding to emergencies and passing a bonding bill, Dayton said, even-year sessions should be devoted to “eliminating unnecessary or redundant laws, rules and regulations” and otherwise making state government more efficient.

Dayton plan echoes original idea

Dayton’s concept is in keeping with the intent of the legislators who championed the constitutional amendment allowing the Legislature to meet annually. That amendment was approved by the Legislature in 1971 and ratified by the voters a year later.

Called “the Flexible Annual Session Amendment” (PDF),  it envisioned lawmakers adopting a two-year state budget and doing the bulk of their work in odd-numbered years. But it allowed them to return to St. Paul in the even-numbered years to correct errors, respond to emergencies and exercise oversight over how their laws were being implemented.

The amendment, approved in the midst of the longest special session in state history, also was intended to reduce the need for special sessions.

So much for legislative intent.

The even-year session quickly morphed into a repeat of the odd-year session, with lawmakers passing more bills and even spending more money when the state appeared to be running a surplus. In recent times, the Legislature actually has enacted more laws in the second year of the biennium than it has in the first.

Amendment eroded ‘citizen Legislature’

The amendment also has done little to discourage special legislative sessions. In the 113 years before its passage, there were 20 special sessions. In the 40 years since the start of annual sessions, there have been 27 special sessions.

Worst of all, the amendment forced the exodus of a number of talented legislators who had careers and families, and could not afford to sacrifice the money and time required by annual sessions. The measure has led to the election of more members who see the Legislature as a full-time job and eroded the concept of the “citizen Legislature.”

Sen. Stanley Holmquist
Former Sen. Stanley Holmquist

Shortly after the amendment was approved, I was talking with Sen. Stanley Holmquist, then the Senate majority leader. He was so enthusiastic about the idea that he said he would like the constitutional change to be remembered as the “Holmquist Amendment.”

Several decades later, I encountered the courtly conservative at a social gathering and asked if he still was enamored of the amendment. “Good idea – poor implementation,” replied Holmquist, who retired a year after the measure’s approval.

The idea for annual legislative sessions was promoted across the nation in the 1960s and ’70s by a group called the Citizens Conference on State Legislatures. With the help of a major grant from the Ford Foundation, it produced a 1971 report called “The Sometimes Governments” that evaluated all 50 legislatures.

While ranking the Minnesota Legislature 10th among the 50, the group faulted the Minnesota body for not meeting annually, paying inadequate salaries and having insufficient support staff.

In 1972, the Twin Cities Citizens League, a nonpartisan public policy group, completed a study of state government (PDF) and also endorsed the idea of annual sessions.

Dayton is not the first governor to want to rein in legislative activity during even-numbered years. Indeed, in 2001, Gov. Jesse Ventura called for a constitutional amendment to return to biennial sessions.

One legislative veteran suggested that Dayton’s proposal “is the governor’s romantic dream of having one year with no legislators nipping at his butt.  Every governor has that dream.”

An idea worth exploring?

However, some observers believe it is an idea worth exploring. Former House Speaker Robert Vanasek, a DFL legislator for 20 years and more recently a lobbyist, says he was “surprised and intrigued” by the Dayton proposal.

“I think there was more legislative oversight in the early years after the annual session amendment was passed,” Vanasek says. “But on the whole, it never fulfilled the original intent.”

Vanasek believes the problem is that the governor and legislative leaders never agreed on ground rules for the new, even-year session when it began in 1974. “Once they started doing it the way they do, it’s very hard to change,” he says.

The major reason, no doubt, is that legislative candidates most often campaign for election on the laws and programs they want to enact, not the existing ones they want to eliminate or streamline.

They also are compensated, in part, on how often they meet. In addition to their annual salary of $31,140, senators are paid $86 a day and House members $66 a day when the two houses are in session, as well as for the days they attend committee meetings between sessions.

Former House Speaker Robert Vanasek
Former House Speaker Robert Vanasek

In 2012, most senators collected $7,000 to $10,000 in so-called “per diem” payments and most House members received $5,000 to $8,000. (In addition, outstate legislators are eligible to receive up to $1,200 a month for housing allowances year-round.)

Not only has the annual session amendment resulted in more full-time legislators and an expanded staff. It also has been a full employment act for the corps of lobbyists who work the corridors of the Capitol.

In 1975, the first year for which data is available, 300 corporations, associations and interest groups employed a total of 750 lobbyists to plead their case. Today, there are 1,287 groups that employ 1,283 lobbyists (many lobbyists have more than one client and many groups have more than one lobbyist).

A veteran legislative researcher believes executive branch agencies bear some of the blame for the increased legislative activity, showing up every session with a multitude of department bills to tinker with the laws they administer. “They generate a significant amount of work for the Legislature.”

Vanasek agrees that state agencies are partly to blame, but says Dayton might be able to set a new direction for the Legislature.

“If the governor follows through next year and says, ‘I only want a bonding bill. I don’t want any other bills. I want you focusing on unnecessary laws and regulations – and here’s a list of places to start,” he could set the stage for a different kind of session,” Vanasek says.

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Comments (9)

Great idea!

Imagine if they would take the even years and use it to streamline government. Maybe it would work better with less money. Yeah... Well, back to work. (Honestly, I hope they consider it and even actually do it, but I'm not going to hold my breath.)

Annual Sessions

Steve Dornfeld does a nice job of documenting the origins of annual sessions, and there's a lot to be valued in former Speaker Vanasek's reflections. Still, I would ask that readers recognize how dysfunctional the Legislature was prior to the amendment that allowed annual sessions: complete dominance by the executive branch, most bills drafted by lobbyists, virtually no legislative staff, very little participation by members of the minority, no open meetings, very little oversight, relegation of legislators to walk-on roles of "the folks who showed up every other year." Hardly a "golden age," with one party in control of the Senate for 114 years, only one woman member out of 201, no members of racial minorities, no Jews in the Senate for 114 years, phones and secretarial support shared by 3-5 members. Ah yes, the good old days! Legislators were all (white, male) citizens. But do we indeed long for the days when most important legislation was crafted at the bar of the St. Paul Hotel?
Not this former senator!
-- John Watson Milton, Afton MN

Annual Sessions

My friend John Milton makes some valid points about the Legislature in the days before annual sessions. However, I also would argue that the Legislature was much less partisan and polarized, and in many ways more productive. Despite the fact that both houses were controlled by Republican-oriented Conservatives, the Legislature in the late 1960s and 1971 created the State Human Rights Department, PCA, State Planning Agency, Met Council, and the regional transit and wastewater systems, and passed the "Minnesota Miracle" school finance legislation and the Fiscal Disparities Act. At least some of this legislation was the result of having able, part-time "citizen legislators," some of whom brought considerable skill and experience to the table.

Agree completely -

Anything the present group could claim would have been accomplished in one-fourth the time.

Breathing

I join Ms. Kahler in not holding my breath while waiting for this to happen, but while we’re all breathing normally, allow the ignorant newbie to Minnesota to ask a question or two.

Why do at least some Minnesotans (maybe practically everyone but me) have such an aversion to genuine annual legislative sessions, regardless of their focus? Having one focused on “substantive” issues and the next one be “corrective” is OK, I guess, but the tone of this piece, at least to my ears, is that we’d all somehow be better off if, every other year, the legislature met for maybe a month or two for “cleanup duty,” and then everyone went home. Yes, of course, it would save me some money as a taxpayer, but isn’t the idea to govern effectively, not necessarily briefly?

I fully understand that the length of a legislative session frequently bears no relationship to its intelligence or accomplishment. It’s a part-time job to begin with, isn’t it? January through May, with perhaps an occasional special session or committee meeting in between?

When the government is already working on a part-time basis, applying pressure to get whatever it’s going to do finished on a shorter and more intensive time frame doesn’t strike me as necessarily to the benefit of citizens beyond the important, but rather narrow, basis of cost.

Moreover, if we really, really want “citizen legislators,” an idea I’d heartily endorse personally, the easiest and most effective way to reach that goal is through the vehicle of term limit legislation. My personal bias is that the limit should be 10 years, combined, tops, as an elected official in the House, Senate, Governor’s office and/or other statewide elective offices.

If we truly want citizens to run the government, and not have people make whole careers out of elected office, the difficulty will be overcoming the self-interest of those who are entrenched. Frankly, I’m inclined toward Andrew Jackson’s view — he used it to support the notion of patronage, which has its own set of problems — that there’s no job in government so technical or complicated that a person of ordinary intelligence cannot learn to do it well.

He was putting that idea out there long before we had statewide public school systems, and I might add “…and education…” after the word “intelligence,” but otherwise, the notion of putting candidates interested in public service and elected office on the ballot who don’t have decades of experience is one that appeals to me. We have plenty of examples, just over the past half-century, of people who had plenty of experience as executives, or in government, who were disasters as policy-makers and/or legislators.

In short, I don’t want to carry the notion of an “un-session” too far, and if we truly want “citizen-legislators,” we have to take the phrase seriously. Elect as legislators people who have not been on a perpetual campaign for most of their adult lives.

No Term Limits

I would strongly oppose term limits, for precisely the reason you state:

"there’s no job in government so technical or complicated that a person of ordinary intelligence cannot learn to do it well."

The key word being, "learn." It takes time to come up to speed on often complex issues. One of the reasons last session was so disastrous is that we had a number of relatively new legislators in high positions of authority. Mn/DOT had to spend much time with the House transportation chair to teach him just how much it costs to build a freeway. Now part of that was due to ideology but much of it was plain ignorance. How can one budget effectiively when one doesn't even know how much stuff costs?

Yes, entrenched legislators can be overly influenced by lobbyists, but the solution isn't term limits, it is an active and engaged citizenry. Fortunately, Minnesota is much better off than most states in the regard, but we need more of it.

Which comes first

The part that's interesting to me about the example with Mn/DOT and the House transportation chair is that someone was presumably elected to office and selected to be transportation chair without knowing such basic facts. It raises the question of whether the cost of building a freeway is something that can only be known and understood through years of experience on the House transportation committee. I should hope that's not the case and would go further and echo your call for an active and engaged citizenry to learn these facts and vote based on how knowledgeable on such questions a candidate actually is rather than how a candidate is ideologically or culturally aligned.

But it winds up to be a kind of chicken-and-egg problem. Citizens are apathetic on these issues in large part because we have professional politicians and bureaucrats who deal with it for us. We might be more individually involved if any one of us had a more realistic shot at being a legislator. On the other hand, an active and engaged citizenry might be the only means to give any one citizen (as opposed to a career politician) a realistic shot at office. So which comes first? Citizen-legislators or an active and engaged citizenry? It's hard to say.

Neither, I think

Both an active and engaged citizenry and citizen-legislators are necessary. I don't think one has to come before the other.

The freeway example was just that. It certainly does take quite a long time to learn about how the federal process works for major transportation projects, to understand how local funding decisions are made for transportation, to understand mode share, how land use is tied to transportation, to understand New Starts, Small Starts, MAP21, NEPA, Title VI, to get to know city planners, Met Council staff and so on. There is an incredible amount of stuff to learn about transportation and I'm just scratching the surface. Then there are all the other issues legislators vote on.

No legislator is an expert on everything. That's why we have legislative committees and frankly, that's why we have lobbyists. The lobbyists educate legislators as well as advocate for their clients. The lobbyists I know aren't interested in giving legislators false or misleading information. They would lose important political connections if they did. They're called "professional" for a reason.

But we absolutely must have an active and engaged citizenry. Term limits will do nothing to improve the situation because terms of service are not the problem. What's missing at the legislature is *all* of the voices of our communities. We make bad decisions when we only hear part of the story.

Annual Sessions

I echo most of the points made by my friend Steve Dornfeld, one of the finest reporters who ever covered the Capitol. There were indeed significant accomplishments, especially those orchestrated during the reign of Senator Gordon Rosenmeier, a rural Conservative. If today there were more legislators of his caliber (along with Senators Coleman, Holmquist, Moe and Popham and Representatives Sabo, Searle, Munger and Carl Johnson), the Legislature could concentrate on the big public policy issues that provide to all Minnesotans a fair and equal chance for fulfillment. And perhaps, with professional staff and proper time management, get the job done effectively (and more expeditiously) so that more talented Minnesotans could bring their talent and experience to the Legislature.
-- John Milton, former State Senator