Inside Minnesota’s ‘Unsession’ of Spring Cleaning
Gov. Mark Dayton pushed lawmakers this year to focus on getting rid of useless and outdated laws during the state’s short legislative session.
If a wild boar gets loose on the streets of Minneapolis, the state agriculture commissioner is personally required, by law, to track the animal down. That’s just one of hundreds of outdated, unnecessary or just plain weird regulations on the books in Minnesota. (It’s also a crime -- a misdemeanor in fact -- to sell fruit in an improperly sized container.) Cleaning up legislation like that is the idea behind an effort championed by Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton, something he calls the “unsession.”
The idea is to devote Minnesota’s relatively short even-year legislative session -- which typically runs only about 40 days -- to legislative housecleaning and eliminating useless laws, as well as tackling weightier issues like simplifying the state’s tax system. It’s a notion that Dayton, a Democrat, has been pushing since he first ran for governor in the late 1990s. Now that he’s got Democratic majorities in both the state House and Senate, he has been pushing the plan even more aggressively. The governor has identified more than 1,000 individual reforms for rules and laws across more than 20 state agencies and commissions. The measures in the crosshairs run the gamut from the ridiculous (state laws that regulate the size and color of bug deflectors) to the arcane but burdensome (eliminating a notice requirement from the duties of licensees for safe-deposit boxes). Among the bigger initiatives are efforts to dramatically shorten the timeline for many environmental permits and speed up the process for writing new administrative rules.
A regular legislative session, or even a special session devoted to a specific issue, can quickly get derailed by myriad concerns, says Rep. Gene Pelowski, a Democrat with nearly three decades in the Minnesota Legislature. As an example, he points to special sessions on disaster relief funding. Minnesota’s had six since 1997; four since just 2007. “You call a special session, and while it’s immediately about the disaster, legislators flood it with bills,” he says. “Then there’s pressure on hearing other things, spending on other things.” (One of Dayton’s unsession bills would create a standing $6 million fund to match federal disaster relief, reducing the need for special sessions.)
This spring’s session saw mixed results. For one thing, the unsession initiative was initially overshadowed by deliberations over what to do with a $1.2 billion state budget surplus. Debate over a proposed construction borrowing plan of about $850 million also distracted lawmakers from Dayton’s spring cleaning agenda. Still, some of Dayton’s proposed reforms were taken up by legislators. By mid-April, 45 had been enacted through five newly signed laws, and another 12 bills had passed at least one chamber.
And there’s been general agreement on both sides of the aisle that revisiting outdated laws is a good plan. “The idea that we should just be passing bills and we should just be adding on things, I think is an outmoded and outdated policy that the public is extremely jaded on,” says Pelowski. “I think they’re much more receptive if we look at government as something that is ongoing and could use fixing in every session.”