The 989-page omnibus budget bill vetoed in May by Gov. Mark Dayton was a “garbage bill.” It contained thousands of budget and policy provisions covering the full range of legislative issues. It lacked transparency and prevented accountability. It also violated the Minnesota Constitution.
When thousands of unrelated provisions are put into one bill, they all sink or swim together. Funding to continue operation of Crisis Connection, Minnesota’s suicide prevention hotline, died with the rest of the overgrown bill. The hotline is shutting down.
Funding to prevent a 7 percent cut in the already-low reimbursement rates for supportive services for people with disabilities was also in the bill. There was strong, bipartisan support for preventing this cut. But it also died as part of the legislation.
This bill, Senate File 3656, was probably the longest single piece of legislation ever passed by the Minnesota Legislature. It contained a vast range of provisions that provided funding and set policies on subjects including:
• Prohibiting grants from the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund to be used to promote domestic terrorism (not that anyone was planning to do so).
• Allowing sugar beet transporters to leak beet juice liquids on the roads.
• Directing the Minnesota Amateur Sports Commission to submit a bid to host the Nordic World Ski Championship.
• Regulating low-dose X-ray security scanners.
• Exempting hair braiders from cosmetology registration requirements.
• Increasing Medical Assistance reimbursement rates for doula services.
• Allowing schools to display “In God We Trust.”
• Requiring private insurance coverage of 3-D mammograms.
This method of lawmaking prevents accountability — with so many disparate provisions in one bill, legislators can only vote for or against all of them. It lacks transparency — many provisions in such bills receive no public attention and become law merely by being tied to other unrelated provisions.
The omnibus budget bill also violates Article 4, Section 17, of the Minnesota Constitution, which requires that legislation deal with no more than a “single subject.” This one bill likely addressed two-thirds of all of the subjects acted upon by the Legislature this year.
It sounds ripe for a legal challenge. However, in April, the Minnesota Supreme Court indicated in the Otto vs. Wright County case that it is unwilling to rule that legislation violates the single-subject requirement unless challengers meet an “extraordinary burden of persuasion … to overcome the general presumption of constitutional validity” [emphasis added]. As a result, the chance of success in court appears slim at this time.
The court said it has repeatedly warned the Legislature not to violate the single-subject requirement and stated: “We trust that the Legislature has heard, and will heed, these warnings.” Unfortunately, the Legislature has refused to police itself, effectively thumbing its nose at the court’s warnings. In 2017, one powerful legislator dismissed the single-subject requirement, saying, “It’s a rule that they have never enforced before, so I don’t know why they are still pointing to that.”
This is not a mere “rule.” It is a constitutional requirement. Back in 1986, the distinguished Supreme Court Justice Lawrence Yetka wrote “ … to add matters totally unrelated to either taxes or appropriations seems to me a clear violation of the [C]onstitution which this court should not tolerate … . The worm that was merely vexatious in the 19th century has become a monster eating the [C]onstitution in the 20th.”
And the problem has been getting worse since then. From the 1870s through the 1930s, the Legislature routinely enacted 400 to 600 new laws annually. In the 1950s and ’60s the pace quickened, with more than 800 laws commonly enacted each year. But since then, the number of laws enacted has steadily fallen — to little more than 100 each year.
The sharp decline in the number of laws enacted in recent years is not a sign that the Legislature is simply doing less legislating. The total number of pages of new statute has remained relatively stable in recent years, but the average number of pages per law has gone up almost fourfold since the 1970s. The Legislature is cramming more provisions into fewer bills.
If the courts don’t intervene now, when will they? Yetka’s worm became a monster, which has now grown into Godzilla.
Is this an accountable way to pass laws? No. I voted against Senate File 3656 because there were many unacceptable provisions and the entire process was flawed. But there were also many good provisions in the bill that I supported.
Constituents who support (or oppose) various provisions cannot hold their legislators accountable in this kind of process because there is no vote on most of the individual items. Voters have no way of knowing their representatives’ views on specific concerns.
This is not a thoughtful way to pass laws. At well over 350,000 words, SF 3656 would take the average reader about 30 hours to read. Yet the legislation was available to senators just three hours before we began debating it. We were aware of many parts of the bill, but neither the public nor legislators could have known everything the bill contained.
Why don’t legislators object? Some of us have. I have repeatedly raised objections to violations of the single-subject requirement. I have offered amendments to remove policy provisions from budget bills. I have voted against legislation I wanted to support because of unacceptable policy additions. I and a number of other senators raised a “protest and dissent” — a seldom-used protest given to legislators under the Constitution. I have exhausted all the internal remedies available.
However, there is a limit to how far one can push for reform on this issue internally. Voting against bills that violate the single-subject prohibition doesn’t change anything when one would oppose the bill anyway on other grounds. But it does change things — perhaps even the outcome — when one votes against a garbage bill one would otherwise support. Consequently, voting against all bills that violate the single-subject requirement hurts only the bills one would otherwise support.
Combining multiple subjects in one bill is not new, and it is bipartisan. Although it has long been a problem, the process during the last couple of sessions has been the worst ever.
Legislative leaders have more control over what passes when they use huge omnibus bills. Provisions that leadership opposes can be quietly removed in conference committee, even if they passed by overwhelming margins. When nobody enforces the Constitution, nothing stops legislative leaders from gaining more power at the expense of a fair process.
Because the Legislature has been unable to police itself and the courts are unwilling to intervene, the process will continue to deteriorate. If the meltdown of the process continues, perhaps we will reach the point where we have a single bill each year, containing everything, and legislators will have only the opportunity to vote for or against the “2025 Omnibus Budget and Policy bill.”
However, there is hope. The public is disgusted by this unaccountable process. They object to legislating through “garbage bills.”
This is campaign season, so make sure that the candidates hear from you. When constituents become vocal, legislators take note. With a public uproar, legislators may actually start paying attention to the Constitution.
John Marty, DFL-Roseville, is a member of the Minnesota Senate.