Chapter 5: New House Republican Caucus pushes for reforms so you can understand new laws

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The New House Republican Caucus (“NHRC”) is working to make it easier for legislators, governors, judges, and citizens to understand the bills that were being proposed to become laws.

In 1857, Minnesota’s first Constitution said “No law may embrace more than one subject, which shall be expressed in its title.” When we renewed our Constitution in 1974, we repeated that requirement.

That made sense. People could read a bill’s title to get the general idea. Then they could read the bill and understand what was at stake.

This “Single Subject Rule” worker for about 120 years. The Minnesota Supreme Court regularly struck down bills that had complex titles and included more than one subject.

But the Legislature is always trying to confuse people and push the limits. Starting in the mid-1980s, the courts started to allow the Legislature to get away with shenanigans.

That came to a peak last year, when State Auditor Rebecca Otto sued the Republican Legislature for burying a provision in a complex bill. The provision allowed counties to hire an independent auditor to make sure their books were balanced. That is not a bad idea, but it violated the Single Subject Rule.

However, the Supreme Court held that, if a bill’s title had the magic words “government operations” and if at least parts of the bill actually dealt with any things that could be described as operations of government, then the bill could stand.

This has led to terrible results. Former Governor Mark Dayton repeatedly said he had signed complex bills that he did not understand.

Last year, the Republican Legislature gave representatives only four hours to read the 1,000-page “Omnibus Prime” bill that included provisions from hundreds of bills that they could not follow before they had to vote on it.

In 1973-74, the Legislature passed 1,366 bills into law on a variety of subjects. In the last two years, all the bills got rolled into just 189 bills. Government is 50 times bigger, but it is not 50 times better.

To revive the Single Subject Rule, Rep. Cal Bahr (Republican-East Bethel) offered House File 986. Voters would be asked in 2020 to add two provisions to the Minnesota Constitution.

First, no bill’s title could be changed after it is introduced. What you read is what you get.

Second, to keep the courts from worrying about a government shut down if they struck down an appropriations bill because of the Single Subject Rule, all existing programs in the bill would be continued at 95 percent of its previous level from the prior two years.

Nine Republicans and nine Democrats have joined Rep. Bahr’s bill as co-authors.

“If people are expected to obey the law, they should be able to watch and understand the legislative process,” Rep. Steve Drazkowski (Republican-Mazeppa) said. “If governors are expected to enforce the laws, they should be able to understand what they are signing.”

“Guiding a society of five million Minnesotans requires a delicate balance between personal liberty and societal responsibility,” said Rep. Tim Miller (Republican-Prinsburg). “Opening the legislative process to citizen eyes and citizen voices will help the voters to see whether we are striking that right balance.”

“You cannot challenge leadership if you cannot see what they are doing in the closing hours of action,” said Rep. Jeremy Munson (Republican-Lake Crystal). “Leaders can be more persuasive if the citizens can watch their hands while they are moving the cards.”

The NHRC is on the right track in pursuing government transparency and the Single Subject Rule. Transparency is about restoring public trust in the Legislature, in our government, and in Minnesota.

There can be no faith in government if our highest politicians are exempt from scrutiny. Those leaders should set the example for transparency.

We need more citizen eyes on the Legislature to root out corruption, to combat inefficiency, and to stop bad ideas.

When the Legislature has to answer to the public, its performance will improve. People need to see what is going on here. The New Republicans are working for change.