The Minnesota Legislature has reached the stage where half the members are busy stuffing a session’s worth of work into a handful of omnibus bills while the other half are busy complaining about omnibus bills.
It has become standard for both parties in the state House and Senate to resort to the use of large bills that combine not only all of the bills before a committee into one bill, but then combine several of those into mega-omnibus bills.
Last week, the House Ways and Means Committee combined policy and budgets related to housing, broadband and agriculture into a single bill. It then amended large packages related to state government, veterans affairs, pensions and transportation into another bill.
House Ways and Means Committee Chair Rena Moran, DFL-St. Paul, said combining bills isn’t her preference, but that the protocols of the Legislature now require the House and Senate to group bills the same way to ease the operation of House-Senate conference committees. “It makes it easier and more efficient, not just for us as Democrats but for our staff that we are overworking with this process,” Moran said.
The ranking Republican on the budget committee, Rep. Pat Garofalo, objected to the practice and said that should his party retake majority control of the House this fall, they would do things differently. “This is neither a DFL or a Republican problem,” said Garofalo, R-Farmington. “This has been going on for multiple years. In fact, it’s been going on for multiple decades, where we have seen fewer and fewer bills.”
That’s true. The 1973-74 Legislature passed the same number of bills as have been passed in the last 11 years combined. A frequent critic of governing by omnibus bills, Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, has pointed out that while the number of individual bills passed has declined, the number of pages of new legislation has remained the same.
That leaves legislators having to decide whether there is more that they support in these large bills than they oppose. Still, many vote for issues in omnibus bills that they would otherwise oppose had they come to the House or Senate floor as standalone legislation.
Concerns even among members in the majority
Garofalo ties more recent omnibus trends to the process by which the Senate majority leader, the House speaker and governor make most of the major decisions in closed meetings and then require lawmakers to vote up or down on hundreds of decisions contained in fewer than a dozen individual bills.
“If we do nothing, we’re going to end up like Washington,” he said.
Complaining about the process, including the trend toward fewer and fewer omnibus bills, often tends to be the domain of the minority party. Already lacking much power, lawmakers in the minority are left to vote on massive bills with issues they might support and issues they might oppose without any voice on what is inside. Often then, the majority votes yes and the minority votes no.
But there are examples of unhappiness even among those in the majority in the House and Senate. “You are going to vote today to fold these three bills together, and is that a good idea?” asked Housing Committee Chair Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, after walking the Ways and Means Committee through her bill.
“There is so much at stake this year and housing is so complicated,” she said. Hausman argued that the bill should stand alone when the House and Senate meet in conference committee to reach a deal.
In the Senate, GOP Sen. Gene Dornink of Hayfield sponsored a bipartisan bill to require committee chairs to get two-thirds majorities in committees to hold bills over “for possible inclusion in the committee bill.” Currently, bills are given hearings but it is the chair and leadership who decide which pieces of legislation might reappear in committee omnibus bills. If they cost money, they must contend with other spending measures to fit under the dollar targets doled out by caucus leadership.
Constitutionalists argue that this all violates the state constitution that says: “No law shall embrace more than one subject, which shall be expressed in its title.” But the Minnesota Supreme Court has grown reluctant to restrict the actions of another branch of government.
“Prior to the 1970s, the Minnesota Supreme Court was much more willing to strike down laws for violating the single-subject clause than it has been since that time,” wrote state Senate attorneys Peter Wattson and Ben Stanley in a 2018 analysis of omnibus bills. “Since the late 1970s, only a handful of alleged violations of the single-subject requirement have come before the court, and the court has found a violation only once.”
“The practice of legislating through the enactment of omnibus bills is generally consistent with the state constitution’s single-subject clause so long as (1) all of the provisions included in an omnibus bill are germane to one another in a general sense; and (2) the title of the bill is sufficient to put interested persons on notice of what is in the bill,” the attorneys concluded.
Supreme courts in other states, however, have been more protective of single-subject clauses. Those states tend to pass hundreds of bills each session while Minnesota accomplished the entire work of the 2021 session, including a $52 billion budget, in just 31 bills in the regular session and only 14 more in the special session.
Omnibus has its roots in the Latin word “for all,” and 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.”
The concept reached its peak in 2018 when the House and Senate — both controlled by Republicans at the time — put the entire work of the session into two bills, one for spending and policy and one for taxation, with the spending bill nicknamed “Omnibus Prime.” Both bills were vetoed by then-Gov. Mark Dayton.
Garofalo says he expects Republicans to win control of the House in the 2022 election, and the chamber could have as many as half of its members newly elected when it convenes next year. He said he is pledging to work to convince the House to change the way it legislates, including urging individuals members who oppose the overuse of omnibus bills to vote their beliefs.
“At the end of the day, legislators are going to have to decide that even if there is something in the bill you like, are you going to vote ‘no’ to make a point,” Garofalo said.