Everything you need to know about omnibus bills, and why they’re so popular at the Minnesota Legislature

MinnPost photo by Greta Kaul
Many legislative observers feel the practice has gotten out of control, with omnibus bills now encompassing so many issues that a single omnibus bill can span hundreds or even thousands of pages, often drafted in mere hours on short deadlines.

Roughly translated, the Latin word “omnibus” means “for all, for everybody.”

In practice, omnibus has become one of those jargony words used mostly by lawmakers in the halls of the state Capitol, casually thrown around with little explanation.

So what do lawmakers mean when they talk about creating so-called omnibus bills?

At the most basic level, omnibus bills are simply packages of budget measures and policy changes. Started as a structural and organizational tool, they were originally a way for lawmakers to bundle similar proposals together in one place.

But many legislative observers feel the practice has gotten out of control, with omnibus bills now encompassing so many issues that a single omnibus bill can span hundreds or even thousands of pages, often drafted in mere hours on short deadlines — so large and complicated that lawmakers sometimes don’t even know what’s in an omnibus bill before they are asked to vote on one.

And like most things in the Capitol, omnibus bills have become part of political strategy, a way lawmakers can pass controversial provisions by wrapping them into a bill that everybody wants.

Here’s how these mega-bills work — and why it’s important to for everyone to understand what lawmakers really mean when they talk about them.

OK, let’s go over this again. What, exactly, is an omnibus bill?
Just like a standard bill, omnibus bills are formal proposals to change laws that are voted on by rank and file lawmakers and sent off to the executive branch for final approval. The difference with omnibus bills is they contain numerous smaller bills, ostensibly on the same broad topic. Take the omnibus tax bill as an example: It may include changes on everything from income, corporate, and sales taxes, but all of those issues can fit under the large umbrella of taxes.

Glossary

Omnibus: A large, single document bill that is accepted in a single vote by a legislature but packages together several measures into one or combines diverse subjects.

Christmas Tree Bills or Garbage Bills: Other terms politicos use to refer to omnibus bills.

Poison Pill: A provision in a bill that leads to people who would have supported it opposing it instead.

Logrolling: Combining several provisions into a single bill, each of which is supported only by a minority of members, but when voted for as a package, will have majority support.

Woodchuck: Hiding controversial provisions in otherwise uncontroversial bills.

That seems reasonable. Wouldn’t it take a long time to pass every single bill on its own?
Many argue that there’s a practical reason omnibus bills exist. Since many bills tend to group together around certain topics — the massive health and human services budget, for example — it can be more efficient to legislate using omnibus bills. What’s more, the Minnesota Constitution specifically makes way for omnibus bills to exist.

That said, to make sure they don’t get too big and complicated, the constitution also requires that omnibus bills must only address a single subject, like taxes. That’s become known around the Capitol as the single subject rule: “No law shall embrace more than one subject, which shall be expressed in its title.”

So the title of an omnibus is important?
Absolutely. Most omnibus bills are given broad titles to avoid bumping into that single subject clause in the constitution. For example, something like “a bill for an act relating to human services,” or “a bill for an act relating to labor and industry” could include all sorts of provisions within that general subject area.

The state learned the dangers of giving an omnibus bill too narrow a title thanks to a court case from 1932. A few years earlier, Minnesota legislators passed a law titled “an act regulating the weight of bread,” which required bread to be weighed before it was sold. In a subsequent session, lawmakers decided they also wanted bread to be wrapped before it was sold, so they amended the wording of the act to “relating to the weight and sanitary wrapping of bread.” The Egekvist family, which owned a bakery back then, sued the state for adding another requirement that was not expressly mentioned in the original title of the bill. The the court agreed, ruling the bread wrapping requirement was unconstitutional and not “germane” to the original bill title.

More recently, a 247-page omnibus tax bill in 1997 included 15 articles related to tax policy and one labeled “Miscellaneous.” Within that section, lawmakers included a provision that required that school districts pay prevailing wages on any construction project with an estimated cost over $100,000. Several groups sued the state to have the prevailing wage section declared unconstitutional because it wasn’t related to taxes and therefore violated the single subject rule. The Minnesota Supreme Court agreed, noting that the subject of prevailing wages had historically been discussed in the labor committee, not the tax committee.

What about “poison pills” that legislators sometimes talk about?
A poison pill is a provision in an omnibus bill that could cause someone to oppose a bill they otherwise might have supported.

That could mean a controversial policy or budget provision plopped inside a large budget bill. In the final minutes of the 2016 session, for example, Republicans blamed Democrats for torpedoing a bonding and transportation funding package by adding a “poison pill” amendment to include funding for light rail transit projects (for their part, Democrats said light rail was always supposed to be in the bill).

Are there any other new political terms I should learn?
Always. In a 2005 paper aptly titled Omnibus Bills and Garbage Bills, former Senate Counsel Peter Wattson defines plenty of terms unfamiliar to most people outside of the Capitol. That includes “logrolling,” which is when lawmakers combine “into one bill several distinct provisions, each of which is supported only by a minority of members, but which, when voted for as a package, will have majority support.”

He also calls certain provisions “woodchucks” — controversial measures snuck into an omnibus bill and intentionally hidden from other members. State Auditor Rebecca Otto argued what was done to her office late in session in 2015 was a bit of “woodchuck” and some “logrolling.” Republicans in the House and Democrats in the Senate included a provision in their state government omnibus bill in the final hours of session that allow counties across the state, which Otto’s office audits, to seek audits from private accounting firms instead.

How do other states handle omnibus bills?
For better or worse, most states and Congress use omnibus bills regularly. And like Minnesota, most state constitutions include some kind of provision to prevent larding up omnibus bills with unrelated provisions, usually with a single subject clause.

It’s actually in the courts where the interpretation of single subject rules and the purpose of omnibus bills gets a bit more muddled. In a paper titled “Log Rolling Versus the Single Subject Rule,” lawyers Stanley Kaminski and Elinor Hart say the courts have interpreted the single subject rule in “most interesting and creative ways, leading a circuit court judge to recently comment that the courts interpret the single subject rule ‘quite differently than most people on the street would define single subject.’”

For example, in Illinois, the courts defined the “budget” as a single subject, while in Oklahoma, the courts found that “the budget” was too broad in scope to possibly be considered a single subject.

Do lawmakers use omnibus bills more now than they used to?
That’s a good question. Over the years, it’s become standard practice in St. Paul to hear individual bills then immediately lay them over for “possible inclusion” in one omnibus bill or another.

It’s also become standard practice to criticize the tactic. As early as the mid-1980s, in ruling on a case about the single subject rule, Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Lawrence Yetka warned that the practice of creating omnibus bills was getting out of control: “The worm that was merely vexatious in the 19th century has become a monster eating the constitution in the 20th.”

So how big is that monster now? To try to get an idea, MinnPost took a look at bills that became law that were classified by the Minnesota House as omnibus bills over the past 11 legislatures (spanning the years 1995 to 2016). While the number of omnibus bills in each biennium fluctuates, on average there were about twenty five omnibus bills that became law each legislature.

But while the number of omnibus bills becoming law hasn’t changed significantly over that time period, the total number of any kind of bills that have become law has been declining. For example, the governor signed (or at least, didn’t veto) 489 bills into law during the 1999-2000 biennium. During the last biennium (2015-16) the number was just 190. Of course, those two years featured divided government, with the House controlled by Republicans and the Senate and governorship held by Democrats. But even in the 2013-14 biennium, when the DFL controlled the Legislature and governorship, just 313 bills became law.

New laws by biennium

The combination of these two factors — fewer standalone bills being signed into law, and a steady number of omnibus bills — means that omnibus bills now represent a higher proportion of all the bills that become law.

How are the omnibus bills shaping up in Minnesota this session?
Well, it’s a budgeting year in Minnesota, when the Legislature has to set state government spending for the next two years, so the omnibus bills are flying.

And as is expected, many of the omnibus budget bills tackle far more than just budget issues. For example, the House Republican’s tax bill is mostly about taxes, but it also touches on everything from fireworks and the Super Bowl to World’s Fair.

Gov. Mark Dayton has warned the Republican-controlled Legislature that he doesn’t want policy measures tucked into some of the major omnibus budget bills that are coming his way. He was particularly miffed that a large omnibus bill funding environmental programs also included policy provisions to delay deadlines to comply with his proposal to create water buffer protection on state waterways. Others are upset that a move to halt efforts to ban plastic bags in cities was also included in environment omnibus bills.

“They think they can ram them down my throat, these policy measures that are bad for Minnesota and that I’ll accept them by tying them to appropriation bills which eventually have to be signed,” Dayton said. “Well, I’ve told them before and I keep saying it, policy measures don’t belong in budget bills, budgets belong in budget bills. If they want to send all of these other policy measures to me, we can deal with them separately.”

Here’s a list of all the omnibus bills being considered in the current Legislature (as of time of publication):

BillDescription
Senate
SF2255Omnibus tax bill
SF2214Omnibus higher education appropriations and policy bill
SF1937Omnibus jobs, commerce, energy, labor and industry, and employment and economic development appropriations bill
SF1316Omnibus veterans and military affairs finance and policy bill
SF1060Omnibus transportation funding and policy bill
SF0803Omnibus judiciary and public safety appropriations bill
SF0800Omnibus health human services bill
SF0780Omnibus agriculture and housing appropriations bill
SF0723Omnibus environment and natural resources appropriations and policy provisions modifications
SF0718Omnibus E-12 education appropriations bill
SF0605Omnibus state government appropriations bill; omnibus veterans and military affairs appropriations bill
SF0514Omnibus elections bill
House
HF2477Omnibus higher education policy and finance bill.
HF2209Omnibus job growth and energy affordability policy and finance bill.
HF0896Omnibus public safety and security policy and finance bill.
HF0895Omnibus agriculture finance bill.
HF0890Omnibus education finance bill.
HF0888Omnibus environment and natural resources finance bill.
HF0861Omnibus transportation finance bill.
HF0707Omnibus legacy bill.
HF0691Omnibus state government finance bill.
HF0004Omnibus tax bill.

News Editor Tom Nehil contributed reporting and data analysis

Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by William Pentelovitch on 03/31/2017 - 11:34 am.

    Single Subject Clause of the Minnesota Constitution

    I am board chair of the ACLU of Minnesota, which consistently opposes the Legislature’s violation of the Single Subject Clause. There is currently pending in the Minnesota Court of Appeals the case of Rebecca Otto v. Wright County, in which State Auditor Otto challenges certain legislation in part based upon violation of the Single Subject Clause. The ACLU of Minnesota has filed an amicus curiae brief urging invalidation of the legislation based on violation of the Single Subject Clause. The case has been briefed and argued in the Court of Appeals and a decision should be issued by early June.

  2. Submitted by Martin Owings on 03/31/2017 - 11:45 am.

    Good Reporting

    This is good work Briana. You put things together nicely here and it gives the reader and wonk alike, a clearer picture. Great job providing the data and glossary. Excellent reporting. Thank you!

  3. Submitted by Cathy Erickson on 03/31/2017 - 01:54 pm.

    Following bills…

    A few things that really help me better follow bills at the Legislature…if you use Google Chrome as your browser…if you open up a bill in the browser you can use the Find feature in the menu(top right corner) to search for key words that you hope might be in one of the big omnibus bills (that can be over 100 to several hundred pages long!). You can also download the PDF version of the bill and in Adobe Acrobat you can search for key words as well.

    Be sure to check for new versions of bills – as they run through committees and possibly get amended, or become victim of the “delete all” amendment you could be looking at the wrong information.

    When doing a bill search at http://www.revisor.mn.us, also take a look at how many actions a bill has – the more actions the better chance it might be moving towards approval – many, many bills get introduced, moved to a committee never to see the light of day again (for many reasons) – but sometimes those individual bills find their way into an omnibus bill via amendments, so even though it might look like nothing is happening (not even a committee hearing) it could very well be in a bill.

    And check dates!! It can take awhile for bills that were amended to make their way to the web site so be sure to match what you think happened on a date to what is currently showing as the most recent version.

    Omnibus bills may be one subject, but there is often a lot of different information in them that may or may not apply to what you might want to follow…like they say, let search be your friend.

  4. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 03/31/2017 - 04:41 pm.

    Logrolling

    Great article. I’ve been following bills in the legislature a bit more closely this year than I have in the past, as well as attending some committee meetings. Observing how they put these omnibus bills together by subject correlates to the committees. I get the impression that the House and Senate Committees are created and their jurisdictions defined to avoid the problems discussed, violating the “single subject” clause of the Minnesota Constitution. Still, it’s hard to follow and the procedures seem designed to confuse joe citizen taxpayer and discourage close attention let alone participation through attendance of hearings or citizen lobbying.

    For what it’s worth, Wisconsin has made “logrolling” a “Class I Felony” in Wisconsin Statute sec. 13.05:

    Logrolling prohibited. Any member of the legislature who gives, offers or promises to give his or her vote or influence in favor of or against any measure or proposition pending or proposed to be introduced in the legislature in consideration or upon condition that any other person elected to the same legislature will give or will promise or agree to give his or her vote or influence in favor of or against any other measure or proposition pending or proposed to be introduced in such legislature, or who gives, offers or promises to give his or her vote or influence for or against any measure on condition that any other member will give his or her vote or influence in favor of any change in any other bill pending or proposed to be introduced in the legislature, is guilty of a Class I felony.”

    My guess is that it’s one of those laws that’s “honored in the breach” which is to say, by never being enforced.

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