Minn. lawmakers: We need to change our ways

Frustrated by stalemates, secret deals and special sessions, Minnesota lawmakers say they’ve got to change their ways. 

But how?

Wednesday, a group of House members gathered for the first of a series of meetings aimed at designing changes to legislative work. But the ideas – ranging from starting the budget process sooner to limiting the number of bills each member can propose – come with their own issues.

“There’s no easy fix for this. It took us awhile to get here. It’s going to take us awhile to get out,” said state Rep. Gene Pelowski, DFL-Winona.

A divided state Legislature and Gov. Tim Walz struggled to reach an agreement on a $49 billion budget this spring. Facing the possibility of a government shutdown, Walz and the top legislative leaders huddled behind closed doors for days, hammering out a deal.

The process dragged out so long that lawmakers needed a 24-hour, taxpayer-funded special session to pass the final agreement.

Each year, lawmakers pile an ever-greater workload on themselves. In 2019, they proposed 5,877 bills – passing only 78 of them.

It’s the largest number of bill proposals since 1971, according to Minnesota Legislative Reference Library records.

And it’s a major increase from previous years: in 2017, lawmakers introduced 5,177 bills; in 2015, 4,638; and in 2013, 3,598.

“We have lost our focus on our constitutional responsibility of the budget, and we have re-focused on hearing members’ bills. That’s not our responsibility,” Pelowski said.

But one solution he floated -- limiting the number of bills each member can file -- would be unpopular because lawmakers all have their own priorities.

Other lawmakers at Wednesday’s meeting turned their attention to the budget process itself, suggesting that the largest budget bills be broken up so they could move through the legislative pipeline more quickly.

“The problem-solving aspect is completely disregarded,” said state Rep. Linda Runbeck, R-Circle Pines. “How do we define the problems and in what ranking and rating and so on, before dumping hundreds and hundreds of bills on people?”

A House research staffer tasked with briefing lawmakers on the current setup called one proposal, to break apart of the giant health and human services budget bill, “doable” but “complicated.”

Walz said this spring he would prefer a more transparent budgeting process, but he has not publicly made suggestions to the Legislature on how to achieve that.

There would be more meetings later this summer, Pelowski said.