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‘Garbage bills’: Public pressure can halt meltdown of the legislative process

Minnesota Senate
MinnPost file photo by Briana Bierschbach
Minnesota Senate

The 989-page legislation vetoed by Gov. Mark Dayton in May was a “garbage bill.” It contained thousands of unrelated budget and policy provisions covering a vast range of issues. It lacked transparency and prevented accountability. It also violated the Minnesota Constitution.

Although legislators accept this flawed process, voters have a chance to reform the process if they speak out during the campaign and demand change. Candidates from both parties are working hard to gain your vote.

Ask legislative candidates to commit to voting against garbage bills. Tell them it is not sufficient to say, “Our longest bills are only 300 pages, not 900.” Tell them to fix the problem, not make it “less bad.” This means passing bills that deal with only one subject. This means keeping policy out of budget bills.

Many candidates will commit. Although they accept the garbage bills because of convenience and custom, legislators will gladly stand up to the customary practice if their constituents are paying attention and raising the issue.

However, if people don’t speak up now, there is little chance for reform.

Senate File 3656

To understand the scope of the problem, let’s examine that monstrous bill. Senate File 3656 was probably the longest piece of legislation ever passed by the Minnesota Legislature. It contained funding and policies on subjects ranging from mandating insurance coverage of 3D mammograms to allowing sugar beet transporters to leak beet juice on the road, from exempting hair braiders from cosmetology registration requirements to prohibiting arts grants from being used to promote domestic terrorism.

With more than 350,000 words, it would take the average reader 30 hours to read through SF 3656. Yet the legislation was available just three hours before the Senate began debating it. Neither the public nor legislators could have known everything the bill contained.

This lacks accountability — by putting countless provisions in one bill, legislators can only vote for or against the batch. It lacks transparency — many provisions receive no public attention and become law only by being tied to other unrelated provisions.

Control and power

With huge omnibus bills, legislative leaders have more control over what passes. Provisions leaders oppose can be quietly removed in conference committee, even if they have overwhelming support. When nobody enforces the Constitution, nothing stops legislative leaders from gaining more power at the expense of a fair process.

Combining multiple subjects in one bill is not new and it is not partisan. However, the problem has been getting much worse, especially during the last couple of sessions.

On top of these other problems, SF 3656 also violates the Minnesota Constitution, which requires that legislation deal with no more than a single subject. This one bill likely contains as much as two-thirds of all the subjects passed by the Legislature this year! It does not have a “single subject.”

State Sen. John Marty

State Sen. John Marty

The Supreme Court has repeatedly warned the Legislature not to violate the single subject requirement. Back in 1986, the distinguished Supreme Court Justice Lawrence Yetka wrote, “to add matters totally unrelated to either taxes or appropriations seems to me a clear violation of the constitution which this court should not tolerate.”

And the problem has been getting worse since then. Since the early 1970s, the number of laws enacted each year has declined more than fourfold. This is not a sign that the Legislature is doing less legislating. The total number of pages of new laws has remained relatively stable over the years,  meaning the Legislature is simply cramming more laws and more provisions into fewer bills.

It sounds ripe for a legal challenge. However, in a recent ruling the Supreme Court indicated that it will not rule that legislation violates the single subject requirement unless challengers meet an “extraordinary burden” of persuasion. Currently, the chance of success in court is slim.

I have repeatedly raised objections to violations of the single subject requirement and offered amendments to remove policy provisions from budget bills. Some legislators have been fighting for government reform against improper actions of both Republicans and DFLers.

Constituents’ voices matter

We need a significant number of legislators to tell legislative leaders at the start of session that they will not vote for garbage bills. If candidates hear from their constituents now, we will get enough legislators to object. That alone could be sufficient to end the practice.

If voters don’t speak out, the process may continue to deteriorate. At the rate we are going, we will eventually have a single bill each year, containing everything, and legislators will have the opportunity to vote for or against the single annual piece of legislation.

Fortunately, there is hope. The public is disgusted with “garbage bills.”

This is campaign season. Make sure that candidates hear from you. When constituents become vocal, legislators take note. With a public uproar, legislators might actually commit to following the Constitution.

John Marty, DFL-Roseville, is a state senator. He first published this article in his newsletter, “To the Point!” which is published by the Apple Pie Alliance.


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Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Tory Koburn on 09/25/2018 - 10:51 am.

    “However, in a recent ruling the Supreme Court indicated that it will not rule that legislation violates the single subject requirement unless challengers meet an “extraordinary burden” of persuasion. Currently, the chance of success in court is slim.”

    Has this been tested? I’m curious to find out about this ruling and how they reached this decision. The MN constitution states that “No law shall embrace more than one subject, which shall be expressed in its title.” That seems like a remarkably straightforward rule that 3656 explicitly ignored.

    How far would one have to go to persuade the court? Did the bill expressly describe it’s subject in it’s title? Perhaps if you enumerated each of the different subjects of the bill? Would you have to argue that beet juice has nothing to do with cosmetology?

    While I doubt Senator Marty’s fear that all annual legislation will one day be stuffed into one bill (I’m not sure how common bills like 3656 are, but it seems to be a pretty recent phenomenon), certainly something must be done. If voting for legislators that promise to abide by the single-issue rule enshrined in the constitution fails to be enough, what other options do we have?

  2. Submitted by Bob Brown on 09/25/2018 - 02:07 pm.

    While I do not often agree with Senator Marty in this case I do. We should work to support legislators who would agree to follow the constitution or else they should be removed from office by the voters..

  3. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 09/25/2018 - 07:12 pm.

    Pass many smaller bills and it is very clear what our government has accomplished. Does it prioritize constituent services ( doing small favors for friends) or focusing on the state’s biggest problems? I say – tangible big accomplishments should be our common goal.

    What is important – that all our citizens live the best quality of life possible! Jobs, education, healthcare, a wide variety of leisure activities, the ability to go places and do things easily and safely, to be treated fairly and protected from harm, and to live long and prosper.

    We actually do pretty well with most of these things, and frankly where we don’t, we have the data to prove it, if not the collective wil to change. Let’s start cutting through the political crap and get to work on “the good life in Minnesota,” the 21st century version.

  4. Submitted by Tom Anderson on 09/26/2018 - 12:24 am.

    The easier solution is to elect a Governor who won’t sign a bill that includes more than one subject. Finding a majority of legislators to agree would be next to impossible.

    If any previous bills that were enacted were, in fact, unconstitutional, they’d have been voided by the courts.

  5. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 09/27/2018 - 08:27 am.

    Looks like the court is the real problem. The Constitution is pretty clear yet the court has decided that some kind of extraordinary burden is necessary? Isn’t it obvious that all these bills contain more than one subject?

    This doesn’t even require legislation from the bench, all the court would be doing is telling the legislator to do it over again the correct way.

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