Nearly seven months after its last meeting, a Minnesota House committee looking at ways to reform how the state budget is produced got a look at the difficulty of the task ahead.
While the chair of the Minnesota House Subcommittee on Legislative Process Reform thinks there’s a problem, it’s less clear others involved do, as his concerns about complexity and transparency were met Wednesday with reasons the process is the way it is.
Rep. Gene Pelowski, a DFLer from Winona, was first elected in 1986 and is one of only a handful of House members who knows the process hasn’t always been done the way it is now. Specifically, there was once a time when individual legislators had more time to process lengthy budget bills and when policy changes were addressed in hundreds of separate bills, each drawing individual debate. Now, a dozen or so omnibus bills contain much of the work of a single session.
Between the 2019 regular and special sessions, in fact, 2,938 bills were introduced in the Minnesota House and 2,925 in the Senate — a record number. In the end, however, just 78 separate bills passed and were signed by Gov. Tim Walz, continuing a trend that has seen more bills introduced each year and fewer passed.
Despite the creation of the subcommittee and the appointment of a critic of the current budget process as its chair, House DFL leadership didn’t make reforms a top priority of the 2019 session. That was illustrated by a new but similarly opaque process that saw most decisions made by leaders outside of public view. The fact that the reform subcommittee met not once during the session is another piece of evidence that the way things work appears to work fine for House DFL leadership.
Still, Pelowski persisted, telling House members on Wednesday — both those on the subcommittee and those listening in — that their ideas were welcome. “There’s no easy fix for this,” Pewlowski said. “It took us a while to get here, it’s gonna take us a while to get out.”
He defended the lack of meetings since December by citing the number of freshmen lawmakers in the Legislature this year. “I stated before that we would have hearings in the interim because we had an influx of new members who hadn’t experienced the process,” Pelowski said. “I think they’ve experienced it now, they have a pretty good idea of what happens when we go into the not-so-special special sessions.”
The latest meeting featured staffer members of the House budget committee, many of whom have longer tenures in state government than the lawmakers on the panel, describing what they do to write a budget. But while asserting that they were indifferent to how things should be done, several also warned of the difficulty of making changes.
Patrick McCormack, director of the nonpartisan House Research, said that there is “nothing wrong or right with the legislative process,” he said. “We actually train our new staff to accept the Legislature as it is, and to work within it.” To that end, he said his testimony was only to describe the process and not suggest changes or reforms.
There were some specific changes raised by some lawmakers, especially Pelowski. Why can’t the Legislature use a revenue forecast produced in December to begin writing the budget instead of waiting for the March forecast? Why can’t it have a base state budget that stays in place from biennium to biennium and would only have to be adjusted up or down during budget sessions? Why can’t the massive omnibus bills that now dominate the session — the 2019 health and human services bill weighed in at nearly 1,000-pages — be broken up into smaller chunks?
Repeatedly, the answer from staff was that they can do anything the elected officials want — but that those changes would also make things more complex and difficult, and dependent on the type of unanimity among the House, Senate and bureaucracy that is rare if not impossible in St. Paul.
Relying on just the December forecast, for example, could leave out holiday shopping data that could raise or lower the amount of money available to be spent, McCormack said.
The use of use of omnibus bills also isn’t required by law or the Minnesota Constitution but has evolved as the preferred method at the Capitol and has been upheld by the state’s courts as not violating the single-subject clause of the state constitution.
The omnibus bill process even varies by budget area, McCormack said. All use slightly different data and forecasts and all work with different state agencies and commissioners. “It’s important to know they all have their own culture; they have their own traditions; they have their own history and their own best practices,” he said. Some committees he has worked with assert that “they do it their way.”
At one point Wednesday, Pelowski tried to make the point that committee staffs are presented with too much work, too many bills, too many requests. That workload then is transferred into overly long and complex omnibus bills that individual lawmakers have no means of studying or even knowing what they are voting on. Mistakes can be made.
“I think it’s a wonder that anything gets done correctly,” he said.
Health and human services committee staffers weren’t readily able to respond to his question as to how many bills they were asked to respond to this year. It took Rep. Jon Kosnick, R-Lakeville, to find the answer: 267 different budget bills and 285 policy bills.
And as to whether the 1,000-page health and human services omnibus bill could be split up, Doug Berg, a House fiscal analyst for those budgets, said it could. But he also warned that,“there are complications to that.”
At the end, McCormack left the reform committee with what he called good news and bad news. The good, he said, is that the Legislature and executive agencies have top-notch staffers who can implement whatever changes elected and appointed policy makers agree on.
The bad news: “Any change to the budget-making process is literally gonna involve hundreds of people. Yes, we have brilliant, bright people who can enact reform. But also to make changes in this area you’re gonna have to adjust statutes; you’ll have to get buy-in from the Senate; you’ll have to get buy-in from the professional and technical people and also from the governor and his political team.”
If that wasn’t hard enough, he said, “there’s gonna be costs and trade offs.”
“The current system developed over multiple years and in a layered way,” McCormack said. “A new system could develop in a similar way.”