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Interesting: Omnibus critic Marty now leads committee that crafts the massive bills

Sen. John Marty, a DFLer from Roseville, is the new chair of the Senate Finance Committee, a legislative panel that usually is the place where the 10 or so big omnibus bills get their final touches and final approval.

State Sen. John Marty, a DFLer from Roseville, is the new chair of the Senate Finance Committee.
State Sen. John Marty: “The goal is to separate budget and policy and create a more accountable, transparent system that’s going to comply with the constitution’s single subject rule.”
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

What happens when the leading critic of massive, multi-subject omnibus bills is put in charge of the committee that presides over the passage of the massive, multi-subject omnibus bills?

As any self-respecting Minnesotan would say, it gets interesting.

Sen. John Marty, a DFLer from Roseville, is the new chair of the Senate Finance Committee, a legislative panel that is often prefaced by the word powerful. It is the Senate’s budget committee that decides what gets funded and what doesn’t, at least within the dollar-amount parameters crafted by legislative leadership.

As such, it usually is the place where the 10 or so big omnibus bills get their final touches and final approval. Each measures in the hundreds of pages. Each contains the work product of an entire set of committees over an entire five-month legislative session. And each forces lawmakers to decide whether the things they favor inside those big bills outweighs the things they dislike. 

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Individual lawmakers complain about being cut out of the process, but leadership likes them because they ease the budget process and make the closing days more manageable. Even though they are ostensibly budget bills, they have come to include both spending and policy. And that is where Marty said he will make his first stand: Budget bills must be about the budget and only the budget.

“I told all of my budget chairs that you can put anything you want in your budget bills but before we hear it in finance, you take out all the policy stuff,” Marty said last week. “Any policy-only provisions are not gonna be in there, period.” And he said the classic workaround of adding a study to a policy bill that needs a few thousand dollars to complete won’t fly, either.

At the very least, then, committees might have to craft two omnibus bills — one containing all the dollar signs and another containing the policy provisions of all the bills considered over the course of the session.

Marty said that could mean going from the recent totals of 50-60 bills passed during the session to 120 or 130. That would be “good progress,” he said,  “not because more is better but we ought to be separating things out.”

Both bill totals are far below historic levels. Marty said the Minnesota Legislature once passed 500-800 bills a session.

What has the reaction been? “I talked about this with my colleagues and met with my budget chairs,” he said. “I expected them to say this is a huge crisis and it ain’t gonna work. But my sense is it’s going a lot better than I thought. I think there are a lot of people here in the Legislature who are saying, let’s do it differently. They don’t like this stuff.

“The goal is to separate budget and policy and create a more accountable, transparent system that’s going to comply with the constitution’s single subject rule.”

Oh yes. The constitution. Like many other states, the Minnesota Constitution says bills must have only one subject, and that subject must be contained in the title of the bill. The theory is that observers — citizens, even — should be able to gauge what a bill does by reading the title. For example, the sentences at the top that say things like, “A bill for an act relating to arts and cultural heritage; appropriating money for Litchfield Opera House,” as House File 225 begins. 

The one-subject rule is also meant to preclude legislation from becoming law that wouldn’t otherwise have majority support in the House and Senate. A good example of such a practice came in 2020 when leaders of the House and Senate combined the construction bill with a series of tax cuts. 

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“That tax bill would not have enough votes to pass the Minnesota House if it were not inside the bonding bill,” House Speaker Melissa Hortman said at the time.

But the Minnesota Supreme Court has shied away from enforcing that clause of the constitution, considering it unwise for one branch of government to weigh too far into the workings of another. 

“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. (The same Peter Wattson, now retired, who was the lead plaintiff in the lawsuits asking the state Supreme Court to draw new legislative and congressional lines.) “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.

Responded Marty: “We should try to comply, even if they don’t force us to comply.”

But at the end of the day, actually at the end of the session, the leaders of the Senate Finance Committee and House Ways and Means Committee have to do things the same way. That’s because disagreements between the bodies are resolved in conference committees. And those conference committees have to resolve bills that have the same subject matter. That’s why even before budget bills hit the House floor or the Senate floor the chairs have agreed on the 10 or so general areas of government they will cover.

State Rep. Liz Olson
State Rep. Liz Olson
Therefore, Marty’s reform gets nowhere if the House doesn’t want to do it the same way. So it is fortunate that the equally new chair of the House Ways and Means Committee wants to make the same changes that Marty is trying to initiate. Rep. Liz Olson, DFL-Duluth, said the House has already been trying to pass more bills as separate pieces of legislation and pass them early in the session.

“We hit the ground running in Ways and Means because we know if we’re serious about not doing the omnibus cram at the end of session it means sending things out as standalone,” Olson said. “I definitely see that as an objective that we have in the House, and I know Sen. Marty does in the Senate.”

Both have talked with each other and with leadership about passing more bills and not having the late-session crunch that Olson said “is not good for the public; it’s not good for staff.” 

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Increasing funding for the attorney general to hire more criminal attorneys who can help counties with complex crime cases already passed out of committee and could get to Gov. Tim Walz soon. In the past, that might have been held over for inclusion in the Judiciary Committee omnibus bill.

And Olson agrees with Marty’s desire to keep policy out of the budget omnibus bills.

“Sen. Marty has been very clear, and he’s given good guidance in the Senate and has been very clear about having that separation of finance and policy,” she said. “Adhering to that as much as we can is a good thing. We’re doing our best to be mindful of that as we proceed in the House. We want our bills to match up with the Senate as we go to conference committee.”

“It’s really about good governance,” Olson added. The bulk of the budget process is still many weeks away, but bills that spend money are being passed, rather than being held to the end.

Still, Olson acknowledges that something happened in November that smooths the way for this reform. The DFL both defended its control of the House and won control of the Senate. Gone is divided government and along with it a desire by some legislators to hold bills back as tools in the end-of-session bargaining. That is, if a bill the GOP wants gets passed to the governor early in session, it is no longer around to be traded for something the DFL wants in late-in-the-game budget negotiations.

With the DFL running both sides and having Walz with the pen, releasing bills early isn’t a concern.

“There absolutely was that negotiation piece,” Olson said. “We had priorities that were different, or a chair would or a member would. There was a way to hold it back. It’s different now. We have alignment between the House and Senate and governor so we’re releasing those through the Ways and Means Committee or Finance.

“We’re finding areas of alignment and setting those bills free,” she said.