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Thissen proposes series of reforms for Minnesota Legislature

Among the ideas proposed by the DFL House minority leader: studying the exemption of legislators from the state’s open records law.

DFL House Minority Leader Paul Thissen: “Changing the culture of the place and how people have operated for years and years, that’s always hard.”
MinnPost photo by Briana Bierschbach

The final moments of the 2015 legislative session were chaotic. With less than a minute and a half to go before the deadline, a budget bill to fund jobs programs showed up on Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt’s desk. He hurriedly put the package up for a vote, while Democrats in the minority stood up and screamed that they were seeing the 90-plus-page bill for the first time. Nonetheless, the bill was passed seconds before the clock struck midnight

Inspired by these events, DFL House Minority Leader Paul Thissen is proposing a slew of changes in 2016 that he says will make the legislative process more transparent, measures that include longer public notices before final votes are taken on major House bills and a provision to address the “revolving door” of legislators who immediately become lobbyists.

“[The process has] never been great, but it was worse in the last session than I’ve ever seen it,” said Thissen, a legislator from Minneapolis serving his seventh term in the House. Some of Thissen’s ideas would simply require the House Rules Committee to vote to change its own procedures, while others would require new state laws.

One of the more significant changes would require lawmakers to set targets for all areas of the state’s budget — education, health and human services, taxes, etc. — 14 days before adjournment. Last session, legislative leaders reached a deal about 72 hours before deadline, touching off a marathon of committee hearings in the middle of the night and floor votes. Thissen would also like those targets to get public testimony and a final vote in the Legislative Commission on Planning and Fiscal Policy.

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“Legislators work toward deadlines,” Thissen said. “If you you have to get these joint targets done 14 days in advance, then legislators will meet that goal.”

His proposal also requires conference committees to publish final bills 24 hours before taking a vote on the House floor, as well as a public notice and opportunity for testimony before conference committee bills are finalized. Among the other proposed changes:

  • Change House rules to strengthen the “single subject” requirement for bills, meaning most proposals can only touch on one subject. He’s also proposing to require budget bills to only include budget provisions, not policy changes.
  • In law, require a one-year period before retiring legislators, judges or cabinet-level executive branch members can become lobbyists (Rep. Ann Lenczewski, DFL-Bloomington, recently retired from the House to join a lobbying firm).
  • Establish a House policy to publish all information related to per diem, mileage, housing stipend and committee budgets on a rolling monthly basis.
  • Require the Legislative Commission on Data Practices to study the policy and costs of including legislators in the Minnesota Data Practices Act. Currently all 201 state legislators are exempt from the state’s open data laws. Under Thissen’s proposal, the commission would report back to the Legislature before the 2017 legislative session with a proposal.

Thissen, who supports including legislators in the state’s open data laws, said the issue is “more complicated than I thought it was going to be.” He thinks legislator correspondence with private citizens should remain private, but other correspondence between legislators and state agencies should be public. There is also a cost to the proposal he wants the commission to study.

He says it won’t be easy to get legislators to include themselves in the Data Practices Act, and he expects some resistance on the proposal overall. “Changing the culture of the place and how people have operated for years and years, that’s always hard,” Thissen said. “But rebuilding the trust in government and changing the process so the public can be involved is worth making a few people uncomfortable.”