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Hating the Minnesota Legislature’s use of omnibus bills is so last year

With the Minnesota Legislature’s reliance on omnibus bills having been roundly criticized during the 2018 campaign, leaders say they want the public to know that they will, in fact, be using such bills again this year. But just the good kind. 

Speaker of the House Hortman, Gov. Tim Walz and Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka
During an unusual joint appearance last week, Speaker of the House Hortman, Gov. Tim Walz and Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka stood together at a press conference to announce a set of deadlines aimed at getting the session’s work done on time — and without the final-days chaos that has become the norm.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

In the Minnesota Legislature, not all omnibus bills are created equal.

There are, it appears, good omnibus bills and bad omnibus bills. Leaders of the House and Senate, as well as Gov. Tim Walz, want the public to know the difference.

From the Latin “for all,” omnibus bills are defined in Duhaime’s Law Dictionary as those that contain “more than one substantive matter, or several minor matters which have been combined into one bill, ostensibly for the sake of convenience.”

Frequently the target of critics who say they violate — or at least stretch the meaning of — the Minnesota Constitution’s single-subject provision (which says: “No law shall embrace more than one subject, which shall be expressed in its title”), omnibus bills got an especially bad name at the conclusion of the 2018 session.

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That’s when a single bill, dubbed Omnibus Prime, came in at nearly 1,000-pages, and contained much of the work product of the entire session. It was the result of combining of a batch of smaller omnibus bills into a single massive omnibus bill.

When then-Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed Prime, it turned the session into what then-House Minority Leader Melissa Hortman called “a heap of nothing.”

Dayton had already vetoed a large (but not as large as Prime) omnibus tax bill, which included lots and lots of items in addition to provisions aimed at bringing the state tax code into alignment with federal tax reforms. But Dayton vetoed it not because it contained too much — but because it contained too little. The GOP-led Legislature hadn’t agreed to pass emergency school funding which Dayton had linked to any tax bill agreement.

Anyway, Omnibus Prime became the symbol of dysfunction, of legislative opacity, of end-of-session chaos. All of the major candidates for governor condemned it and declared they would sooner veto any of its offspring than allow such legislative legerdemain to become law on their watch.

But as the 2019 session approaches the two-month mark, and as Gov. Tim Walz prepares to release his budget plan, legislative leaders and Walz all say they want the public to know that there will be omnibus bills — just not, like, the bad kind of omnibus bills. Some even prefer using the term “committee bills” to describe what will emerge toward the end of session.

These bills will not be 1,000-pages long with hundreds of different pieces of legislation. Instead, they will be hundreds of pages long with dozens of different pieces of legislation. The former is bad omnibus, but the latter is good omnibus, or at least necessary omnibus.

Isn’t this what they get elected to do?

During an unusual joint appearance last week, Walz, now Speaker of the House Hortman and Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka stood together at a press conference to announce a set of deadlines aimed at getting the session’s work done on time — and without the final-days chaos that has become the norm.

Among the new deadlines are several that relate to budget targets and budget legislation: that finance bills will pass through each house by May 1, and that House/Senate conference committees will complete their chunks of the budget by May 13. The 2019 session is set to end on May 20.

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There are no real penalties for failure, except perhaps public enmity. But to make it official, the three elected officials signed a letter addressed to all House and Senate members as well as Walz’s cabinet. “As you know Minnesota seems to like divided government, but that doesn’t mean that we have to be divided on everything,” Gazelka said.

But the letter ended with this qualifier: “An agreement on fiscal targets will not constitute an agreement on all outstanding issues, nor a commitment to pass a conference committee report out of either body, not a commitment by the governor to sign a conference report into law, solely because the report meets the identified fiscal target, as there may be additional issues to resolve before final action on conference committee reports.”

At the press conference, the trio was asked why they were making such a big deal out of making a deal to do what they get elected to do in the first place. “Well, it says the bar is pretty low, I guess,” Walz said. “Our hope is this becomes the norm and this is the expectation. But it hasn’t been for a long time. It’s a start.”

To work, it will have to involve omnibus bills (or committee bills or whatever they are called). And it likely also means including policy provisions with or without direct connection to the budget numbers and targets inside those bills. Dayton tried to tell lawmakers he wouldn’t stand for that, but he sometimes was forced to. And that’s what GOP leadership was banking on last session: that he would swallow his objections again and sign Omnibus Prime because the positive things inside the bill outweighed the negative.

Walz, who spent 12 years in the U.S. Congress which does not have restrictions on what can be placed into seemingly unrelated bills, doesn’t seem to have such objections. “There’s an art and a science to this, and probably more art and a little bit of luck. But that being said, we can do multiple things at one time,” he said. “I want to make clear the policy proposals are critically important. But we have to have some agreement as to when we’re going to reach loggerheads over those.”

While Walz said during his campaign for governor he would have vetoed Omnibus Prime, he walked that back a bit last week. “The legislative process should be left to the legislators. You get better government when you allow the process to work its way through the regular order,” he said.

He blamed a “flawed process” for the conflicts over omnibus bills that marked the relationships between Dayton and GOP leaders. “I know the single-subject issue is near and dear to many people’s hearts, but the reality is of sometimes having to find ways we can compromise and combine things. We are going to have to do that.”

Single-subject, multiple workarounds

Turns out, there is already a proposal to amend the state constitution to make the single-subject rule tougher in hopes the state Supreme Court will enforce it. The measure also includes a provision to continue funding state government if an omnibus appropriations bill is vetoed so the court doesn’t risk a shutdown.

Rep. Cal Bahr, R-East Bethel, uses statistics to show that the Legislature can avoid relying on omnibus bills. In the 1973-74 Legislature, 1,366 bills were passed into law. During the 2017-18 biennium, there were just 189. This doesn’t reflect a drop in legislation, just a decline in the number of bills containing all that legislation.

Jack Davies, a former Senate President and former appeals court judge, has testified repeatedly against the use of omnibus bills. He said that too often proposals are heard by a committee then held for “possible inclusion in the committee bill.” Some make it, some don’t. But the only way to know is to pour through the bills that tend to bunch up at deadlines.

“What makes the practice offensive to followers of the Legislature is that advocates of the bill, and its opponents, are left uncertain as to what the future holds,” Davies wrote in testimony to a House process reform committee.

Davies also argues that many of the omnibus bills violate the single-subject clause of the state constitution, saying the have “been the route to gross violation of the single-subject mandate.”

This time is different. Or pretty much the same.

The new DFL majority in the House has pledged to do omnibus bills differently. Before the session, then Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, said they would not include items in committee bills that had not at least had a hearing in said committee. “We want to function differently,” Winkler said. But such bills will still be used.

“Some things have to be done that way because they have a significant budget impact,” he said. “You can’t start sending individual bills until you know the targeted dollar amount that is available in that area of the budget. Some of that is just necessary.”

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What about sticking policy bills inside omnibus bills meant to keep a cap on spending? Yes, Winkler said, if they relate to spending. “Committee bills aren’t going to go away,” he said. “I think the difference is we’re going to try to rebalance and have more individual bills travel separately if they are just policy bills.”

The Senate does not have such a standard. Last week, while unveiling the Senate GOP’s budget principles, Gazelka said: “Policy does not have to be linked to finances to be in a bill and that’s common.”

And it was the committee bills, not Omnibus Prime, that triggered what some termed a constitutional crisis. At the end of the 2017 session, Dayton vetoed the Legislature’s own appropriation in response to GOP leaders forcing Dayton to sign omnibus bills containing stuff he didn’t like in order to get stuff he did like.

Sign them, he did. But he then used broader line-item veto powers given to governors in spending bills to remove the money to fund the House and Senate, offering to restore their funding only if they redid the omnibus bill items he signed but didn’t want to sign.

The GOP went to court instead. And while the Supreme Court ultimately said the governor could defund an independent branch of government to get leverage over it, the conflict was kind of swept to the side in order to start the 2018 session in peace (and we know how that worked out).