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Why some seemingly popular issues never come up for a vote at the Minnesota Legislature

Looking at you, liquor law liberalization.

State Rep. Jim Nash holding the 1948 liquor law book he claims hasn't changed much since then.
State Rep. Jim Nash holding the 1948 liquor law book he claims hasn't changed much since then.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

It is a common lament of Minnesota legislators and advocates when seemingly popular bills aren’t moving: If this reached the floor of the House or Senate, it would pass easily.

This year, just since the regular session ended, two issues unresolved by the Legislature have been described that way.

One is a tax credit that supports the renovation of historic structures. “If the historic tax credit bill came to the Senate floor clean, I’m going to say it gets 67 votes,” said Sen. David Senjem, R-Rochester. The Senate has 67 members.

Another is a bill to further liberalize the state’s liquor laws, a measure supporters say has broad backing among Republicans and DFLers, metro and rural lawmakers and House members and senators. “I challenge you to find a legislative House district in the entire state where the majority of the people oppose what we’re trying to do here,” Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn said of the bill. “This is what the people want.”

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Yet neither bill the House version of the liquor bill not the Senate version has received a hearing in either the DFL-controlled House or the GOP-controlled Senate.

There are other examples. House Republicans were sure that if they could have a vote to rescind Gov. Tim Walz’s declaration of a peacetime emergency, which passed in the Senate, it would be approved with a coalition of Republicans and rural DFLers. But House Speaker Melissa Hortman has successfully kept it from being voted on directly, instead using procedural votes to keep it off the House floor.

The lawmakers supporting some of these fledgling issues aren’t all in the minority party or backbenchers who lack clout. Rep. Liz Olson, prime sponsor of the Drink Local bill, is the No. 3 leader of the House DFL caucus. Senjem is a committee chair and a former Senate majority leader. Sen. Mark Koran, the prime sponsor of the liquor law bill in the Senate, is a North Branch Republican and a committee chair.

State Rep. Liz Olson
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
State Rep. Liz Olson, prime sponsor of the Drink Local bill, is the No. 3 leader of the House DFL caucus.
But if they can’t get legislative movement on bills that appear to have popular and legislative support, who can? Why are these bills bottled up?

Political, and practical, reasons for avoiding a vote

There are many reasons why bills that might pass either or both legislative chambers never get the chance. Most are political; some are procedural. 

“You would think the average Minnesota citizen would say if a bill is introduced you vote it up or down and you stand by the consequences of that choice. But sometimes the process gets a little more convoluted than that,” said Steve Sviggum, who served in the House for 29 years and was both a Republican Minority Leader and a Speaker of the House.

At the same event where Senjem made his prediction of a unanimous vote for the historic preservation tax credit, Rep. Cheryl Youakim, chair of the Property Taxes Division of the House Taxes Committee, explained why it’s not going to happen that way. The DFLer from Hopkins said tax bills don’t get voted on individually because they have to fit into the overall revenue and spending for the two-year budget.

The House and Senate taxes committees were given a target as to how much they could cut taxes and still reach a balanced budget. Much of that will be taken up by tax forgiveness on pandemic-related unemployment benefits and paycheck protection plan loans. There are competing uses for what is left, and the historic credit that she supports is just one.

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“We do have the bill almost filled up in the House,” Youakim said of the taxes bill. “But I have colleagues on both sides of the aisle that really care about this provision.”

State Rep. Cheryl Youakim
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
State Rep. Cheryl Youakim, chair of the Property Taxes Division of the House Taxes Committee, said tax bills don’t get voted on individually because they have to fit into the overall revenue and spending for the two-year budget.
Joyce Peppin, a House member from 2005 to 2019 who was House majority leader for the last four years of her time, said if every tax cut bill was brought to the floor, there would be pressure on lawmakers to vote yes, carving deep holes into state budgets. “If you bring a tax bill to the floor there are going to be hundreds of amendments,” Peppin said. “You can’t have a hundred amendments pass and that’s your tax policy. The numbers won’t add up for the state.”

Sviggum noted that the opposite of popular bills not passing is unpopular items getting adopted because they’re inside omnibus bills along with dozens of other items. Lawmakers have to weigh whether there is more to like than dislike when they decide how to vote, he said.

Amy Koch, a former GOP senator and majority leader, said caucuses are governed by an important rule: While individual members are free to vote their consciences on issues, they must stick with the caucus on what are termed procedural votes. Voting on rescinding a governor’s emergency declaration is a conscience vote, but voting on letting the GOP bring the issue directly to the floor — rather than follow the normal process of going through committee — is a procedural vote.

“This is why the majority and the minority matter so much,” said Koch, now a lobbyist and political commentator. While voters think they are voting for a person, she said, they are really voting for a House speaker or Senate majority leader who can decide what issues those individual lawmakers do and don’t vote on. And while any member can try to bring up a bill, presiding officers of committees and on the House and Senate floor can rule them out of order or not send them to committee, she said. If those rulings are challenged, the leaders of majority caucuses expect all members to vote to support the majority ruling.

“On matters of procedure like that, you must always vote with your majority,” Koch said. While the practice allows the majority to control what issues are considered, it’s also for a practical reason: The session must be managed to complete the work in a reasonable amount of time. 

“A lot of people have a problem with that because they feel that if it’s a good thing you should be able to bring it up and vote on it,” she said. “But it’s also a way of managing flow. If people can just bring anything up willy-nilly, it’s hard to get anything done.”

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Other issues that might pass don’t get the chance for other reasons, Koch said. “Sometimes it is political pressure, sometimes it’s the power of the chair, sometimes it’s, ‘We like this bill, but it’s gonna attract a bunch of amendments so we have to find a more creative way to get it out there,’” Koch said. “Sometimes they’re being held up by a chair, but sometimes you don’t have the votes.” 

Other times leaders of legislative caucuses don’t want to put their members in a position to cast a “bad vote,” one that might end up on campaign hit literature come election time.

Harder to change a law than keep the status quo

Opposition to the liquor bill — which would allow breweries to sell beer to-go in cans and bottles; let liquor stores, bars and restaurants fill growlers; raise growler limits for craft breweries; allow distilleries to sell full-sized bottles; and let cideries and brew pubs distribute their products — comes from municipal and private liquor stores, alcohol wholesalers and the Teamsters Union. Both political parties have supporters among those interests, but lawmakers also want to support the small business people who have started breweries and distilleries.

“You see a broader coalition this go-round, the list of supporters is long,” said Rep. Liz Olson, DFL-Duluth. “There are 22 bill authors in the House, and there is no rhyme or reason; it is rural districts, it is urban districts, it is very progressive legislators, it is very conservative legislators.”

Often, when lawmakers are reluctant to choose between groups they support — and who support them — they will demand that the dueling groups meet to settle their differences and present an agreement for ratification. That has become known as a “peace in the valley” agreement.

But the Drink Local coalition says that only works if both sides want to change the current law — or if they fear that changes will be forced on them if they don’t agree. That doesn’t appear to be the case, as the liquor stores, wholesalers and the Teamsters Union are OK with the status quo. They also argue that they agreed to changes several years ago that not only allowed Sunday sales in liquor stores but also let distillers sell some of their own product.

Since those changes, however, more brewers have reached production limits that require the closure of their taprooms. And three Minnesota producers have announced expansions in Wisconsin, which has less restrictive laws. “I’m tired of sending business to Wisconsin,” Koran said this week. 

State Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn
State Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn
“For too long our liquor laws have been dictated by what lobbyists were able to agree to,” said Becker-Finn, a Roseville DFLer who chairs the House Judiciary Committee. “If you talk to Minnesotans, to consumers, they want all these places to stay in business. We need to start listening to those people.”

Sviggum said that it is harder to change law than to keep the status quo. That maxim applies to both the governor’s emergency powers and liquor laws. He said requiring warring special interests to reach agreement has a purpose, both for policy and politics.

“Members can say, ‘Well, this is the agreement,’” he said. “I didn’t have to take sides, I didn’t have to tick off one of the support groups in my district versus another of the support groups in my district.” 

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“If you have equal number of reasons to vote for something as against something, it’s just easier to not take it up, to not do anything until there’s a deal or more support,” Peppin said. “Legislators are constantly being asked to pick among friends or among interests they feel equally about, so it defaults to the easier road and that’s the status quo.

“It takes a while for some of those things, and after a few years you chip away and then it changes.”

Peppin said it isn’t just big lobbies that keep lawmakers from supporting something. Sometimes it is individuals who work for that industry. “Legislators are people, and they are moved by arguments from people they trust or have come to know,” she said. 

Koch said the peace-in-the-valley requirement is useful when two entities are battling over turf but she said eventually, if one side doesn’t bargain and the other has popular support, change will happen without a deal. “Sunday sales is a good example,” she said. “There was a point where the public finally said, ‘Enough, we’re not buying any of these arguments, we don’t understand why this thing isn’t moving.

“Eventually the public says, ‘Just stop it. Don’t give me politics anymore. Pass it.”

 That’s what the Drink Local members are hoping for. “We’re not going anywhere until these laws change,” said Lauren Bennett McGinty, executive director of the Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild. “We’re here to stay.”