There might have been no better illustration of how long the lack of transparency at the Minnesota Legislature has been a problem than the testimony provided by a longtime lobbyist and former legislative staffer at an informational hearing Wednesday on legislative process reform.
Phil Griffin, in response to a request from state Rep. Gene Pelowski, Jr., dug up and offered testimony on the shortcomings of the legislative process he had delivered before.
The concerns were much the same back then, Griffin said, and they remain today: The Legislature is hard to follow, even for those who get paid to do so. Too much work is done out of public view. Too much is left for the closing days. And too much business is left to be addressed in massive omnibus bills that include dozens and sometimes hundreds of bills.
“In short, Mr. Chair and members,” Griffin said (again), “we have concerns about how the legislative process is being abused and the impact this has on the public’s ability to follow and comment on proposed legislation.”
Others echoed those complaints. “I don’t think anyone really likes the process,” said Nick Harper, civic engagement director for the League of Women Voters.
The news media, lobbyists and even members in the minority party are “often left in the dark.” “If the people who are paid to be here on a full-time basis are unable to follow the process, how can you expect your constituents to?” Harper asked.
Lobbyist John Kaul said he has watched the process become less transparent over time, as more decision making has gone into fewer hands and legislation that once moved through the process individually gets placed in “these mega, mother-of-all conference committees.”
“If we’re doing what the people want, why is this level of secrecy needed?” he asked. “I’ve often wondered why you go to all the trouble to campaign for six months-eight-months a year, raise all that money only to be taken out of the process when these big decisions are being made.”
After detailing a set of suggestions about making the budgeting process more open, Rep. Jim Knoblach, a Republican who is the outgoing chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, said the problem starts with individual elected officials.
“The common denominator of these recommendations is to take some power away from leadership,” Knoblach said. “I think that members in general delegate too much power to their leaders. The state would be better served if members did not do it as much as they do.”
Jack Davies, who served in the state Senate from 1958 to 1982 and was later appointed to the state court of appeals, has long made the case that the Legislature regularly violates what is called the single-subject clause of the Minnesota Constitution. While the Supreme Court has done little to enforce the clause in the cases that have so far been brought before it, Davies thinks a better case might bring a different result.
In the meantime, he thinks the Legislature itself could stop using omnibus bills and large “committee bills” that contain all of the work of a given committee in one end-of-session bill. He also thinks the incoming DFL House leadership won’t use the omnibus bill tool this session, noting that Gov.-elect Tim Walz opposed them during the campaign.
“Rumor has it that the governor elect will take the position that since the Supreme Court won’t enforce the single-subject rule, he will,” Davies said.
Davies also said he thinks the legislative process could be made more efficient, more-transparent and less partisan if small subcommittees worked on individual bills.
The price of compromise
The discussion also covered a lot of items that matter more to legislators and insiders than to the public, such as whether there should be limits on the number of bills each legislator can introduce and whether budget targets — which set the dollar amounts that can be spent in each area of government — should be voted on by all members rather than set by leaders. There was also an esoteric discussion about increased partisanship in Minnesota and America and the effect that has on legislating.
The incoming Rules Committee Chair will likely be Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-St. Louis Park, who is returning to the Legislature after resigning his seat in 2015. After listening to the testimony — which included a lot of talk about how a better process existed in the 1970s and 1980s, when lawmakers were more-likely to compromise with the other party — Winkler noted, “times have changed.”
“The two parties are more ideologically consistent and pure than there once were,” he said. “The incentives for negotiating have changed. There is far more outside pressure from interest groups to maintain a strong position and not ‘sell out.’ There is a political price to be paid for compromise that is different than it once was.”
Winkler said leaders, committee chairs and members of both parties can take action outside of rule changes to “mitigate these harms.” But he said that requires spending time building relationships that cross party lines, which is easier to do behind closed doors.
“Part of it is because that’s where people feel like they have space to actually give and take,” Winkler said. “It’s not ideal from a transparency perspective but it is, I think, a realistic response to the glare of attention on public decisions when they might not always be popular with all groups.”
Complaints about process and transparency tend to be the domain of the minority party, which is often shut out of the decision-making late in session. That could explain why only one Republican, Knoblach, attended Wednesday information hearing, and he won’t be in the next Legislature. Knoblach suspended his re-election campaign after his daughter came forward with allegations of inappropriate touching.
Pelowski said he hopes his DFL party leadership will push the transparency issue in the upcoming session. House DFL leader Melissa Hortman of Brooklyn Park, who will be elected House Speaker in January when the new Legislature convenes, has created a subcommittee of the House Rules Committee on Legislative Process Reform. Pelowski, a Winona lawmaker first elected in 1986, was appointed chair.