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How new rules for the Minnesota House signal the downfall of democracy. Or not.

The new House DFL majority says the new rules are simply to make things more efficient. Republicans say they’re anti-democratic, and anti-transparency. 

A DFLer from Crystal, state Rep. Lyndon Carlson, Sr. will have 21 subcommittees, dubbed “divisions,” under his committee this session.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

A set of proposed rules for how the Minnesota House of Representatives should run has produced starkly different interpretations, depending partly on which party is talking about them.

According to the DFLers who now make up the majority in the House, the newish method of managing the flow of budget-related bills is more efficient: a way for legislation to spend less time on the House floor and more time in committees, where the heavy lifting of legislating is really done.

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But for House Republicans — both the 55-member Republican Caucus and the four-member “New Republican” caucus — those same rules constitute an anti-transparency move that puts democracy at risk. The newbie GOP even borrowed the motto of the Washington Post — “Democracy Dies in Darkness” — when discussing the rules, and one person testifying against them even drew a comparison to the casus belli of the Revolutionary War.

So is the move anti-democratic or a way of making things more efficient? Both? And does anyone outside the halls of the state Capitol much care?

How it will work

The fight over the rules played out on Friday at the House Rules and Legislative Administration Committee, but it actually began on the very first day of the 2019 session. A day that’s traditionally taken up with pomp and giddiness shifted into a mostly one-sided argument over how the House will be organized.

Here’s the gist of the fight: Longtime Rep. Lyndon Carlson, Sr. is the chair of a committee that is often preceded by the phrase “the powerful”: the House Ways and Means Committee. A DFLer from Crystal, Carlson will have 21 subcommittees, dubbed “divisions,” under his committee this session. Those divisions will cover the entire swath of state government, from transportation and education to public safety and agriculture. In fact, those divisions cover so much ground that the House will only have nine committees that are not under Carlson’s oversight, and a list compiled by the four-member New Republican caucus showed that 155 bills had already been sent to Carlson’s committee.

But it isn’t only that concentration of legislative power that has Republicans riled. It’s the way bills will flow between Carlson’s committee and the divisions. In previous years, the entire House voted on the referral of bills from the House floor to committees and from one committee to another. Nearly always, these are routine actions and the decisions of the Speaker of the House are ratified by the majority party. But sometimes there were discussions and fights over the moves. Almost always, they were fights the minority party lost — but at least they got a chance to complain about it.

MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
House Republican Caucus leader Kurt Daudt, right, has complained that certain rules give one person too much power. House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, center, mostly held his tongue at the committee’s meeting Friday.
Under the proposed rules, the entire House would still send bills related to the state budget to Carlson’s committee. What’s new is that Carlson will get to decide how they move from there to the divisions, and whether to remove bills from the divisions under the same process.

House Republican Caucus leader Kurt Daudt has complained that such rules give one person too much power — and that bills should move along in the legislative process only when a majority of those on a given committee decide to do so. The new rules will also make it more difficult for regular people to follow the progress of a bill, Daudt argues.

“This isn’t political,” the Crown Republican said Friday. “This is literally about this institution and doing what’s right not only for this institution but for the public. This is a mistake. It shouldn’t be done. This is destined to set you up for a public that is going to be mad at you because they can’t follow the process.”

The good old rules: not always so good

Though the new rules are, for now, temporary, the likelihood that they will become permanent led Daudt to raise the alarm. As speaker of the House for the last four years, Daudt didn’t serve on committees. Now, as the leader of the GOP minority in the House, he only serves on one, the Rules Committee. But he said if he did serve on committees he would want his vote to matter, and said he would be unhappy if Carlson could pluck bills from a division without a vote of its members. “It should actually mean something when you’re here,” he said.

House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, who also chairs the rules committee, mostly held his tongue at the committee’s meeting Friday, letting the GOP and a handful of members of the public complain about the rules.

But that reticence didn’t apply to other DFL lawmakers. Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, DFL-Roseville, said the House’s webpage and bill tracking applications will allow the public to know when bills move from Ways and Means to its divisions and back again. The search function contained on MyBills, the Legislature’s bill tracking service, would provide notice of where bills are and when they moved from one committee to another, she said.

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The House rules still require three-days notice of public hearings, she said, and drew a contrast between the new rules and what she worked under when the GOP had the majority and Daudt was speaker.

“We’re talking about the old rules as though everything was great,” she said. “There’s this, ‘Oh my gosh we might not be able to vote on things in committee.’” But the vast majority of bills heard in GOP-controlled committees were held “for possible inclusion in the committee bill,” which meant that much of a committee’s work wasn’t passed under individual bill numbers, but instead was keep by the chair and put into a large omnibus bill that made tracking the legislation difficult.

Sometimes, however, the content of bills that were never heard by the committee ended up in those omnibus bills. Rarely were they the bills sponsored by Democrats, however. “Being ‘laid over for possible inclusion in an omnibus bill,’ especially if you’re in the minority, is speak for, ‘Your bill is dead,’” said Becker-Finn.

Minnesota Nice tyrant

A group of state residents, organized as Minnesota Citizen Lobbyist, has been showing up and raising concerns with the proposed rules. Friday, some of them appeared at a press conference with the New Republican caucus members. And one, Elizabeth Bangert of St. Peter, testified before the Rules Committee.

“We the people demand transparency,” Bangert said.

As the owner of a daycare, she said, she has special interest in House Bill 30, which would create a new state system of services for children from birth to age three. Bangert said she worries that she won’t be able to keep track of it and testify when public hearings are held. “For every single one of you who votes for these rules, I will find out what district you’re from, I will start contacting people and that will be on you and your next election.”

Elizabeth Bangert of St. Peter spoke at a press conference following her testimony before the Rules Committee.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Elizabeth Bangert of St. Peter spoke at a press conference following her testimony before the Rules Committee.
The New Republicans are trying to find their role in a Legislature unfamiliar with having more than two caucuses representing members of the House. Friday, however, they were able to criticize both the DFL and their former mates in the GOP caucus. Rep. Steve Drazkowski dubbed the Ways and Means Committee the “hide and seek committee” and said Carlson has too much power.

“Rep. Carlson has been said to be a nice person,” said Drazkowski, of Mazeppa. “I agree with that. He’s a nice person. But a nice person given tyrannical powers is a nice tyrant. And that’s not what we’re looking for.”

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Another member of the new GOP caucus, Rep. Cal Bahr from East Bethel, was also critical of old system and the reliance on omnibus bills that contributed to a breakdown at the end of the 2018 session. Much of the work of that Legislature was rolled into a few massive bills. Then-Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed two of them. Bahr said all four members of the New Republican Caucus voted against those bills, even though they came out of the caucus they belonged to last year.

Such “monster bills” make it impossible to track legislation and force lawmakers to support items they oppose in order to advance items them favor. “I call on my Democratic colleagues to revert to the old process, reject these rules and go back to the old committee process … but get rid of the omnibus bills to boot,” Bahr said.

No vote was taken on the rules on Friday. Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, said he expected taking amendments and voting at a future meeting, probably in the first full week of February.

State Rep. Steve Drazkowski
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
State Rep. Steve Drazkowski: "Rep. Carlson has been said to be a nice person. I agree with that. He’s a nice person. But a nice person given tyrannical powers is a nice tyrant."
After the meeting, Winkler defended the proposed rules. Public notice rules will remain as they have been and the bill-tracking system will show when bills move and also include the so-called “referral memos” by Carlson.

“We eat up a lot of session time going to floor sessions simply for the sake of moving bills from one committee to another,” Winkler said. “That distracts from our ability to spend time in committee where public input is actually possible. Our goal is to spend more time in committees working on bills rather than doing the pro forma stuff of going to the House floor every couple of days.

“It eats time and does nothing for public transparency,” Winkler said. “As long as we maintain a system where that information is on-line and publicly available, I don’t see that there’s any change in transparency.”