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News app: What kind of legislation did first-term lawmakers introduce last session?

Here’s an easy way to see how many bills each first-termer introduced last session and then to parse that legislation.

Sen. Michelle Benson
Sen. Michelle Benson

“I’ve kind of got a reputation for being able to take some sort of mundane work and shepherd it through the process. Nothing is real fancy or glamorous.” That’s first-term Republican state Sen. Michelle Benson, who introduced more legislation last session than all but one of her freshman Senate colleagues.

That senator was Dave Thompson, also a Republican. “Until you called me,” he told me, “I really had no idea I was the most prolific chief author among the freshmen. I certainly didn’t enter the legislation with that intent; it would be always in areas that are of importance to me, that are consistent with what I believe and the direction I think the state should go.”

Where the first-term lawmakers think the state should go was a matter of intense interest to watchers of the raucous 2010-2011 legislative session. The bills that made noise made a lot of noise, but the work of the Legislature is mostly smaller, quieter movements. (We’ve created a data visualization tool to help you parse the work of first-termers like Thompson and Benson.)

Even a seasoned tabloid editor would struggle to wrestle a splashy headline from most of the 39 bills that list Thompson as chief author, or the 32 that Benson introduced. (By contrast, the leading freshman House member, Republican Rep. Duane Quam, introduced 20 pieces of legislation. The highest number for any member was 65 in the House and 55 in the Senate.)

An example of the not-very-splashy: If you’ve ever purchased an insurance plan for your mobile phone to protect you from the burden of paying for a new phone when you drop the phone or lose it, that call you made to the phone company to tell them your sob story was to a licensed insurance adjuster. State law doesn’t allow just anybody to record those details. Thompson’s work changed that. Now a company can have 25 people who are not licensed insurance adjusters taking those calls for every one person who is.

“That drives business costs down,” Thompson explains. “Not controversial, not interesting, nothing that anybody’s going to give me great kudos for, and yet you do enough of those things over time and maybe someday instead of that little insurance package being $8.99 per month, maybe it will be $7.99.”

Much of the legislation a given lawmaker introduces, however, goes nowhere. It is part of the learning curve for first-termers. Another part of that learning curve: those bills that go somewhere, like a committee hearing, can be a lot of work, and for over-achievers like Thompson and Benson, that work piles up.

Sen. Dave Thompson
Sen. Dave Thompson

“Maybe I should have more discretion,” laughs Benson. “I have learned how to do the process a little bit better.

“As soon as you drop [a bill], there will be a bunch of people that come out of the woodwork and say, ‘We’d like to influence where this legislation goes.’ So there’s a real busy period as soon it gets some attention.”

Thompson calls the committee process the “hot seat.”

“You provide explanations of the legislation. You’re often assisted by witnesses or testifiers who may have more expertise in a specific area that you have.

“Then you take questions and try to get it to the committee, and you may have to go through that process in two or more committees depending upon the type of legislation.” Then, of course, it is off to the floor for debate and, if all goes well, a vote.

All didn’t go well in the last session, however. Consumed by bitter political divisions at just about every step, culminating in a showdown (and then a shutdown) over the budget, the Legislature introduced fewer bills in the regular session than any Legislature in recent memory. All told, the House and Senate introduced a combined 3,238 bills. In the 2009-2010 regular session that number was more than twice that.

Gov. Mark Dayton also signed far fewer bills than in previous sessions, putting his signature on 94 bills, down from 362 in Pawlenty’s final year.

Not just about the numbers: Taking a closer look at the work
As part of The Intelligencer’s participatory performance review of first-term lawmakers, I worked with intrepid MinnPost intern Kevin Schaul to create a special tool for assessing their chief author work.

We’ve created a treemap with the names of each truly first-term legislator. We’ve excluded any first-termer who has served in the Legislature previously. The idea is to see how much legislation each lawmaker introduced and then to parse that legislation.

We made it easy. Each lawmaker has a box. The bigger the box, the more legislation they introduced (this is the same as having chief author status). Click on a name and you’ll find a full list of that legislation with a summary and a link. If you want to really dig in, click the link and read the full text of the legislation. You’ll also find tabs that list whatever committees that lawmaker serves on and the counties they represent.

As always, I want to know what you find interesting. You can tell me what you find and share any questions that come up using this simple and secure form. Or you can start a conversation in the comments below.

If you want to keep digging, have a look at campaign contributions. How does legislation introduced by a particular lawmaker reflect financial support from the 2010 campaign?

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If you want to read more of what Thompson and Benson had to say, I’ve posted interview transcripts at this project’s public reporting diary.

This data is part of a continuing conversation and investigation. Help me to keep it moving along.