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Why the Minnesota Legislature loves/hates massive omnibus bills

One critic of omnibus bills, Sen. John Marty, takes issue with the notion that the reliance on omnibus bills is just business as usual. 

State Rep. Tina Liebling
State Rep. Tina Liebling, center, speaking during an April 3 press conference at the State Capitol.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

Asked to describe what was contained in her proposed Health and Human Services omnibus bill — a document that is 1,043-pages long — state Rep. Tina Liebling gushed a bit.

“It’s a hard bill to talk about because it covers so many wonderful things,” said the DFLer from Rochester.

Her answer defines both the reason the Minnesota Legislature continues to rely on omnibus bills — and why those bills continue to attract so much criticism.

So many proposals. So few bills

Party affiliation might influence whether one views the contents of Liebling’s bill, House File 2414, as wonderful or not. GOP members, for instance, aren’t likely to be as enamored by the collection of DFL measures inside. Both parties, however, can at least agree with one part of her description of the bill: “so many.” After all, much of the work product of several House committees is contained in its pages.

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It addition to funding health and human services agencies and programs, it increases the monthly payment to recipients of the state’s basic welfare grant for the first time since 1986; contains the DFL’s response to fraud revelations in the Child Care Assistance Program; enhances mental health grants; outlines the House’s attempt to reform adult family care regulation; and reinstates the 2 percent tax on health care providers that collects money for insurance subsidies.

Gov. Tim Walz
Gov. Tim Walz
Also included: the Walz administration’s plan to offer tax credits and premium subsidies for people buying insurance through the individual market — the DFL alternative to what’s called reinsurance, which reimburses private insurers for high-cost policy holders.

But that’s not all. There’s also Gov. Tim Walz’s signature health program, which would let more Minnesotans buy policies via a state-run plan similar to MinnesotaCare. It also contains legislation that makes up the DFL’s agenda on controlling drug costs, regulating the pharmacy industry and making emergency insulin available to Type 1 diabetics who can’t afford it. The bill also modifies the medical marijuana program and requires health maintenance organizations to be nonprofit (along with imposing other restrictions on them).

Oh, and it says people must be 21 to buy any tobacco product.

And there is more, much more. And while the health and human services omnibus bill is the largest among the Legislature’s omnibi, others also combine dozens and dozens of bills before the Legislature into single entities that contain hundreds of provisions and hundreds of pages.

A state government policy and finance bill that funds the offices of constitutional officers and state agencies, for example, includes a plan to restore votes for felons released from custody and caps probation for most offenses at five years. Two gun-safety bills the House is pushing this year, meanwhile, were added into the public safety omnibus.

A jobs omnibus bill includes everything from a new paid family leave plan and wage theft prevention to funding for a new student loan ombudsperson. A transportation omnibus includes the DFL bill to allow undocumented immigrants to get driver’s licenses.

The House even combined some of the omnibus bills together to make their subject matter sync up more closely with bills coming out of the Senate. For example, that state government finance omnibus bill was combined with an omnibus veterans and military affairs finance bill.

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The House Ways and Means Committee also combined an omnibus housing finance bill with an omnibus agriculture and food finance bill. And it combined the omnibus energy and climate finance and policy bills with the omnibus jobs and economic development finance bill.

In the GOP-controlled Senate, meanwhile, the omnibus bills are smaller, but that’s mostly because the spending targets are smaller and their approach to government is more limited. But their omnibus bills also contain lots of policy, not just budget issues, including a 20-week abortion ban and much stricter responses to the audits that revealed cheating in the child care assistance program. Additionally, a Senate state government funding bill would require state agencies to measure how much a proposed regulation would increase housing costs and even adopts year-round Daylight Saving Time.

But unlike his House colleagues, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka isn’t sheepish about using omnibus bills to house policy measures under the broad topics of the title. “Policy does not have to be linked to finances to be in a bill, and that’s common,” the Nisswa Republican said earlier in the session.

Good omnibus vs. bad omnibus?

Before the Legislature took its Easter/Passover break last week, Sen. Jim Abeler of Anoka, the Republican chair of the Senate Human Services Committee, teased DFLers by holding up Liebling’s bill and comparing it to last year’s GOP all-in-one bill, dubbed Omnibus Prime.

“I guess old habits die hard,” Abeler said. “There was earlier a commitment to transparency. My arm is actually getting tired just from holding this up here. It truly is. It’s too big.”

So is what the House DFL doing any different from what DFLers complained about when Republicans did it last year? How was that 1,000-page Omnibus Prime bill brought by the GOP any different from this year’s 1,000-page health and human services omnibus bill?

When asked about the size of the health and human services omnibus bill — which is actually longer than last year’s widely criticized bill Omnibus Prime — House Speaker Melissa Hortman said there is a difference: in the process. The 2018 bill was crafted in a non-budget year, when only smaller changes are usually made to existing spending plans, she said. Instead, it combined nearly the entire work product of the 2018 session.

The House Ways and Means Committee combined an omnibus housing finance bill with an omnibus agriculture and food finance bill.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
The House Ways and Means Committee combined an omnibus housing finance bill with an omnibus agriculture and food finance bill.
Additionally, Hortman noted, it was crafted by House and Senate GOP leadership outside the committee structure and outside of public view. Her caucus’ omnibus bills are done by committees, not leadership, and have been put together in open committee session, not behind closed doors.

“This bill pertains to health and human services,” Hortman said after unveiling the HHS bill. “It does not pertain to health and human services. And the environment. And taxes. And the kitchen sink. So that is the difference.”

House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler even put the blame for having so much policy in House finance bills on the GOP-controlled Senate. That is the only way, he said, to keep DFL priorities alive for end-of-session negotiations.

“The House is moving forward with a lot of ambitious legislation this year and the Senate is not,” the Golden Valley DFLer said. “In order for us to continue these conversations, that means the omnibus bills have to come with all of the plans that we have to improve the lives of Minnesotans contained in them.

“Maybe it’s not the best approach that we would prefer, but we have to have a negotiating partner on the other side,” Winkler said. And the only way for that is to have all of the House priorities in the budget bills.

Hortman joined Winkler in trying to slip the blame for her own caucus’ big bills on Gazelka. “I fought hard in private negotiations with Sen. Gazelka for us to have an education policy bill, an environment policy bill, a health policy bill, an elections policy bill, an energy policy bill,” she said. “And he prefers that we put those things in the larger public bills.”

Not business as usual

Despite Hortman’s attempt at distinguishing between her side’s omnibus bill this session and those of the past, the bills remain the same legislative grab bags that were criticized by House DFL members when they were in the minority.

And they are still being criticized by DFLers in the Senate. Among other problems, says Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, there is no legal way for the contents of the massive bills to be reflected in the title, as the state constitution demands (“No law shall embrace more than one subject, which shall be expressed in its title.”)

A longtime critic of omnibus bills, Marty even produced a parody of what a bill title would have to look like to meet the constitutional standard. But the state Supreme Court has been reluctant to enforce the provision against what Marty dubs “garbage bills.”

State Sen. John Marty
State Sen. John Marty
Marty also takes issue with assertions that all this omnibusing is business as usual. He has looked at the number of bills passed over the last four decades and seen a fourfold reduction. But it doesn’t signify less legislating.

In a commentary he wrote after 2018’s Omnibus Prime bill was vetoed by then-Gov. Mark Dayton, Marty wrote: “The total number of pages of new laws has remained relatively stable over the years, meaning the Legislature is simply cramming more laws and more provisions into fewer bills.”

But there’s an important distinction to note regarding Marty. He is in the minority caucus in the Senate, and complaining about the failure to follow the single-subject provisions of the state Constitution is almost always the purview of legislators out of power.

And there is little sign that things will be changing anytime soon, even if lawmakers would prefer that it did. After winning House Ways and Means Committee approval of the state government finance/election and campaign finance/veterans and military affairs finance omnibus bill, the legislation’s prime author, Rep. Michael Nelson, DFL-Brooklyn Park, was already anticipating the much-harder work ahead: reconciling it with whatever omnibus bill the Senate comes up with in a House-Senate conference committee.

“Thank you members,” Nelson said. “And pray for me in conference.”