2017 LEGISLATIVE REVIEW
A Departure from Constitutional Process
The LEA evaluation of the 2017 Minnesota Legislative Session reveals a serious departure from our state constitution and its framework for good governance. Two core principles of our republic, genuine representative government and equal justice under the law, were degraded this year as unconstitutional multi-subject bills addressed widely varying interests and priorities. Single-subject bills largely responded to failures from previous legislation at the state and federal level.
Our representative government was designed to be limited by the consent of the governed. The Minnesota Constitution lays out specific procedures to protect that principle. The constitution’s single subject requirement, multiple readings of each bill in two separate houses, open public sessions, public roll-call votes, the governor’s veto, and the possibility of a veto override provide checks and balances to deter back-room legislative deal making and ensure an open, public, and transparent process with clear accountability. If this process is violated, the people can replace their representatives.
This year 30% of the bills passed, including nearly all of the budget bills, were large, multi-subject bills that included both new policy and spending. orgput into the final version of the omnibus public safety bill as a continuing-education requirement for issuing or renewing their licenses. When ten omnibus bills shaped by the Republican leadership containing nearly the entire budget were vetoed by the governor in early May, they were further expanded in committees to include additional special interest provisions and presented without much debate for an up-or-down vote at the end of session or in special session. The session was largely dominated by special interests fighting over what they could get at the expense of the governed.
Equal justice under the law also suffered, in part because of the crisis management approach taken towards non-spending issues that arose. For example, when Federal law restricting the use of coal threatened to close the power plant in Sherburne County, a law allowing that plant to use natural gas was passed, rather than a law that would grant this option to all utilities in the state. When housing developers complained about being blindsided by building moratoria imposed by City Councils, the legislature passed a law for how city councils should notify people and hold hearings on housing development, but not general laws about how all local governments should notify people in all cases that their decisions pose unexpected burdens on citizens. Last year unemployment benefits were extended to Northern Minnesota miners, but not to other people who suffered equally in less-publicized layoffs. The result is that the legislature is creating a complex web of law in which many natural interest groups, corporations, or classes of citizens are treated unequally.
The result is a proliferation of so many laws that make compliance expensive if not impossible, sometimes even by legislators. This is reflected in the omnibus jobs bill where the following language is inserted: “If an appropriation in this article is enacted more than once in the 2017 legislative session, the appropriation must be given effect only once.”
With the growing abuse of multi-subject legislation has come an expansion of bill titles. Many bills approach 100 words just for the title before the list of amended statutes. Some titles are longer than the 250 words the local newspapers accept in a letter to the editor.
The framers of the Minnesota Constitution were wise to construct it as they did. As with the US Constitution, they believed that our government officials would often try to violate people’s rights. They were correct. The 2017 legislative session put on display the breakdown of a number of important safeguards. The single subject rule has, over the years, been increasingly ignored. Several bills that went through normal procedures and failed were held over and reintroduced as provisions within omnibus bills. Also, the use of multi-subject bills (MSBs) provoked a new and problematic twist on the use of vetoes. The governor signed budget bills, but not before line-item-vetoing the legislature’s funding in an attempt to force the legislature to remove policies he did not like from the bills he had already signed. Moreover, while the governor vetoed the special-session labor standards bill, he illegally invoked power to enforce labor agreements contained in the vetoed bill even though the legislature did not ratify them before adjournment of regular session. The legislature then neglected to challenge the governor’s enforcement action. Adherence to constitutional processes would prevent such abuses.
There is no official accounting for the damage done by the ever-expanding departure from constitutional principles. Citizens must work to restore their individual commitment to and faith in the rule of law and demand that their legislators honor their constitutional oaths.
2017 LEA HONOREES
There were no Senate honorees.
Senate: Bruce Anderson, Michelle Fischbach, Mary Kiffmeyer, and Andrew Mathews
House: Steve Drazkowski, Mary Franson, Jeff Howe, Cindy Pugh, and Abigail Whelan
Bahr, Cal 80%
Dean, Matt 75%
Lucero, Eric 75%
To read the entire report go to the Legislation Evaluation Assembly website.