This is supposed to be the year the Minnesota Legislature undoes as much as it does.
The “unsession,” as Gov. Mark Dayton dubbed it, is being pitched as a chance for state lawmakers to do away with antiquated and unnecessary laws and policies. But with the first day of the 2014 session still weeks away, the Capitol is already a hive of activity.
Almost 300 bills have been introduced in the House, ahead of the Legislature’s Feb. 25 start date, and the legislative calendar is bristling with scheduled hearings. In St. Paul and back in legislators’ home districts, the unsession presession is in full swing.
When the polar vortex hit in early January, state Sen. Matt Schmit, DFL-Red Wing, was at a community forum about broadband Internet access in Park Rapids, hoping his engine would turn over once the mercury hit 30 below. Schmit, who hopes to spend the upcoming session working on the issue of broadband access in outstate Minnesota, has held dozens of meetings around the state and met with more than two dozen House and Senate colleagues in their home districts, hoping to drum up interest in the idea.
“I’ve been surprised at the level of need that’s out there,” said Schmit, who said he heard from everyone from small businesses and students to farmers who need faster Internet connections for their increasingly high-tech equipment. “I also think there’s a way of framing this in terms of the unsession. If you look at our telecommunications laws on the books right now, there are more references to the telegraph than there are to the Internet. That just boggles the mind. Some of those statutes are more than 100 years old.”
In most years, the Legislature would be in session already. Lawmakers with big plans for the 2014 session are taking full advantage of the extra weeks of planning time before the session starts. This year’s session will include big pushes for a higher state minimum wage, a possible billion-dollar bonding bill and a vigorous debate over what, if anything, to do with the state’s anticipated budget surplus.
A late February start date means every day will count for lawmakers hoping to get their bills passed into law before the session ends in the spring. State Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, is pushing legislation that would raise the state minimum wage to $9.50 an hour, welcomed the extra weeks as a chance to work on his issue without the distraction of a full schedule of committee hearings and floor votes.
“We’ve got to make sure hearings are ready to go and strategy’s ready,” said Winkler, who has held hearings in the off-session. A later start date “forces us to set some clear priorities about things we want to work on.”
Last week was “committee week” at the House, with more than a dozen meetings crowding a legislative calendar that has been relatively bare since the Legislature adjourned last spring. House Speaker Paul Thissen organized the week of informational meetings to make it easier for outstate lawmakers to make it as committees began tackling the preliminary work on issues ranging from bonding projects to state pension funds to dangerous synthetic drugs.
“I imagine there will be more presession activity, just because people are getting ready to go and want to hit the ground running, and it’s going to be a tighter time frame,” Thissen said.
Republican Rep. Kelby Woodard of Belle Plaine is hoping the unsession will include a crack at dismantling a good chunk of the MNsure health insurance exchange the Legislature just assembled last year. None of the four committees he serves on met during committee week, freeing up more time for him to spend in his district, where he has teamed up with his Democratic counterpart, state Sen. Kevin Dahle, DFL-Northfield, for a series of town hall meetings.
“I guess I was just a little bit disappointed,” said Woodard, after looking over some of the 278 bills that were offered for early introduction in the House. “There’s not a whole lot of Democrat bills looking at MNsure or Obamacare.”
Woodard plans to rectify that with legislation of his own, including one that would call for school districts to be reimbursed for any extra expenses they incur as a result of the Affordable Care Act.
For lawmakers, it’s been a long wait for a relatively short legislative session. Not that many of them are complaining. A late start means more time home in their districts, with their families and at their day jobs — the ones that pay more than a state legislator’s $31,140 base salary.
“I find it a relief to start at the end of February,” Winkler said. “I have kids in hockey.”