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Lawmakers’ bad habits breed cynicism

Now that the  second session of this biennium is under way, it behooves our legislators to undertake reforms to improve the way they conduct the people’s business.

Like me, a lot of people have been increasing their activism, accumulating T-shirts of various colors (e.g., red for Mom’s Demand Action, white for Restore the Vote, purple for Redistricting Reform). Many went further by attending hearings and even testifying last session at the state Capitol. I’m sure I’m not alone in coming away frustrated by the dysfunction. Now that the  second session of this biennium is under way, it behooves our legislators to undertake reforms to improve the way they conduct the people’s business.

Fortunately, the Minnesota House’s Legislative Process Reform Subcommittee – benefiting from the wise leadership of its chair, Rep. Gene Pelowski, D-Winona – took a serious look at the issue during the interim, and forwarded several proposed rule revisions to the full Rules Committee. Though modest, and not receiving the attention warranted, they deserve legislators’ support. In a nutshell, the intent is to prod leadership to adhere to earlier deadlines to set budget targets and move bills through committee onto the floor. As we’ve seen in the impeachment process, the Constitution isn’t self-enforcing, and neither are state legislative rules. In order to properly function, legislators need to instill a culture of forbearance in which they restrain themselves from regularly exploiting to the max momentary opportunities of procedural advantage. A stark example was recently reported in MinnPost.

Perhaps the Legislature’s worst habit is the practice by committee chairs of hearing a bill, then declaring it will be “held over for possible later inclusion in a committee omnibus bill” (or similar jargon). It’s not just individuals like me who find this aggravating. I’ve even heard legislators saying this doesn’t align with what they learned in high school civics. I’m old enough to remember that bills with broad, bicameral and bipartisan support used to move through committees to be adopted on the floors (often by voice vote); and after differences were resolved in conference committee they’d move on to routine final passage in each body. Turns out nowadays popular bills are often used as leverage in behind-the-scenes negotiations among leadership, leaving advocates waiting to see if their provisions ultimately made it into an omnibus bill. The most tragic example of a good bill that died off in darkness last session was the Alec Smith Emergency Insulin Act. Pelowski’s proposed rule amendments won’t solve this problem, but constituents should press their legislators to urge committee chairs and leadership to abandon this democracy-degrading practice.