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Pros and Cons of a Full-Time Minnesota Legislature

Supporters say a constitutional amendment would provide flexibility for lawmakers, but critics worry it would lead to year-round sessions.

Sometime on May 20, likely after retiring lawmakers deliver their final speeches, someone will move that the Minnesota House and Senate adjourn “Sine Die.”

That’s Latin for “without a day” and means that once the final gavels sound, the 2024 Legislature will not be reconvening — at least not in regular session — until next year.

But it might be the last time this tradition — hallowed or hackneyed — is carried out in the Capitol. Its end depends on a few pending decisions — one made before that gavel clap and one after; one made by lawmakers themselves and one made by voters.

House File 4598 would ask voters this November to approve a single amendment to the constitution with three different changes:

  • Create a new commission to redraw congressional and legislative districts every decade following the census.
  • Require former legislators to wait a year before they can return to lobby the Legislature
  • Change the way the constitution limits the time the House and Senate can remain in regular session and create a way for lawmakers — not just the governor — to convene special sessions.

It was the last provision that drew the bulk of the criticism last week during meetings of the House State Government Committee, with Republican members accusing majority DFLers of trying to create a full-time Legislature. The debate included quotations from a popular children’s book and a tutorial on the archaic legislative phrase “logrolling.”

Rep. Jamie Long, a DFLer from Minneapolis and the current majority leader of the House, described all three provisions of the proposed amendment as good-government ideas. The length-of-session language would increase flexibility for the Legislature, he said, and rebalance the power between the executive branch and legislative branch of government.

Currently, once the regular session ends on the first Monday after the third Saturday of May — May 20 this year — only governors can call the Legislature back into session. So at times, when governors “unallot” spending passed by the Legislature to respond to budget shortfalls, as former Gov. Tim Pawlenty most recently did, lawmakers must wait until the following year to respond, Long said. The same was true when Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed the Legislature’s own funding as a way to pressure it to pass unrelated provisions.

Under the proposed amendment, once Legislatures convene in January of odd-numbered years, there would be no constitutional end date until the next Legislature convenes two years later. And the same section of the amendment would end the requirement that neither the House nor Senate can adjourn for more than three days without the agreement of both bodies.

The combination of provisions suggests that the majority could either stay in session all year or recess for long periods and then return when the leadership decides — not at the order of governors. Long said the latter scenario is more likely and is borne out by the Wisconsin Legislature, which has similar rules but does not meet year round, causing one journalist to dub it “full-time (lite).”

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, four states have legislatures that can meet year-round and have large staffs: California, New York, Michigan and Pennsylvania. Six others are like Wisconsin that are full-time but don’t meet as often.

But whether Minnesota’s Legislature will meet full time should the amendment make the ballot and pass was of less concern to Republicans than whether it could meet full time.

“I can’t think of anything potentially more frightening,” said Rep. Jim Nash, R-Waconia. “I talk with folks in the district and around the state and they convey to me their fear for their wallet and their checkbooks when we’re in session. Elongating the legislative session is really scary.

“Minnesota does not need a full time Legislature,” he said, adding that the measure would create a “professional political class.”

“We are now north of 5,000 bills,” Nash said. “How much more time do you need?”

Long took issue with GOP assertions that the amendment changes a part-time Legislature into a full-time one.

“It gives us more flexibility to set our schedule, but it does not determine how our schedule is set,” he said.

Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul, said he supported the change to how the legislative year is determined because of what he called “the rapid growth of the lobbying interests in our state, the massive expansion of lobbyists and special interests who come here and ply their trade.

“I think a way to break those shackles is to have legislators that are informed, knowledgeable, learn their craft and work for their districts,” he said. “We need to have things like what you are doing with this constitutional amendment.”

And what about that children’s book? Nash held up a copy of “If You Give A Mouse A Cookie” by Laura Numeroff and Felicia Bond and compared the Long plan to the story of the mouse who asked for a cookie and then a glass of milk and then a napkin.

“If you give a mouse a cookie, Rep. Long, with this professional political class, if we do that it’ll be one thing after another after another after another. And then we become California or New York,” Nash said. “Members, don’t give the mouse the cookie.”

Republicans also objected to putting three issues into one ballot measure. Long said all relate to the functioning of the Legislature, but Republicans said they are not related closely enough and pointed to the need to amend three different articles of the state constitution to carry out the measure.

Which is why logrolling was brought up. Rep. Jon Koznick, R-Lakeville, said the practice of putting unrelated issues in the same bill in order to collect a majority of support isn’t permitted under the state’s single-subject constitutional provision.

“I hope someone will stand up and challenge this in the courts,” Koznick said.

Most members of the committee, however, hadn’t heard of the term logrolling, thanking Koznick for the tutorial.

While Long repeatedly disputed allegations that his desire is for a full-time Legislature, he has supported such a move. Two years ago, he sponsored a similar measure and said then: “A number of my colleagues see the downsides of having a full-time executive and a full-time court system and only a part-time Legislature.”

Asked about the issue Thursday, House Speaker Melissa Hortman endorsed the effort.

“The way the Legislature was designed initially was around this agrarian schedule. You know, people had to get home to plant,” she said. “In a modern economy, in a modern era, you have to look at, does the Legislature have to modernize to meet the modernization we see in other parts of society?”

Constitutional amendments require a simple majority of the House and Senate to advance to the November ballot. They then require not just a majority of voters who vote on that issue to be in support, but a majority of those voting in that election to vote yes. To illustrate, a proposed amendment in 1980 that would have created a redistricting commission won 57.8 percent of the vote among those who voted on that measure (1,036,581 yes vs. 754,935 no) but only 49.9 percent of the 2,079,4111 voters who took part in that election.

The DFL-controlled Legislature made two other changes to the legislative schedule last session, moves that did not require a change to the constitution. The first changed the date when sessions begin in January from the first Tuesday after the first Monday to the first Tuesday after the second Monday.

It also changed how lawmakers count what are called “legislative days” in the constitution. The current constitution caps at 120 the number of legislative days in any two-year period. By statute, legislative days are any days when either the House or the Senate is called into session.

Starting in 2025, the definition of a legislative day will be changed to any day on which either chamber gives a bill its final vote, adopts a rule, elects a University of Minnesota regent, confirms a gubernatorial appointment or votes to override a veto. While that still sounds like a lot of days, it would reduce the number of days that count against the 120-day cap.

This article was first published by MinnPost. Read the original article.
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