Even for an activity that’s been likened to sausage-making, lawmaking at the close of the 2015 Legislature’s regular session was both hard to watch and hard to stomach. Nearly two weeks of leaders-only confabs ended with a last-weekend flurry of wee-hours deal-making, abbreviated debates, missed deadlines, misunderstandings and, ultimately, vetoes and a special session to finish the job.
The result was a D- grade for openness and transparency from the Center for Public Integrity, a national government watchdog. The Star Tribune Editorial Board and others around the state scolded those in charge for the large volume of public business conducted in private and the confusing rush to the finish. We called for a more open and orderly process next time. With the 2016 Legislature due to convene March 8, “next time” is in sight. Fortunately, so is a thoughtful proposal for better end-of-session procedures, the handiwork of House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis.
Thissen’s ideas ran to nine bullet points. Four of them would amend House rules to both slow down and open up lawmaking activity in a session’s final weeks. We regret that he did not propose an end to the closed-door negotiations involving the governor and legislative leaders that produce “joint targets,” the size limit for budget bills. But he did call for more public airing of those targets before they go into effect, via a public hearing and a vote by the joint House/Senate Legislative Commission on Planning and Fiscal Policy. He proposed a deadline for the commission’s vote — 14 days before the date set by the state Constitution for regular session adjournment. That’s much earlier than recent practice; in 2015, joint targets were announced just three days before session’s end. What if that deadline is not met? In that case, he proposes that the full House would be required to approve joint targets — a prospect that could terrify some majority caucus leaders.
Thissen also recommended two changes that would reassert the constitutional rule that “no law shall embrace more than one subject.” Violations of that rule have become commonplace, which explains why only 80 bills were enacted last year, the smallest number in state history. Too much was packed into too few “omnibus” bills, giving too few legislators control over their fate and too few observers a chance to know their contents.
He added three other good ideas that would improve transparency and accountability:
• Require that at least one year must elapse after a legislator, judge or state agency head leaves office before he or she can become a registered lobbyist. It’s unseemly when — to cite a recent case in point — former state Rep. Ann Lenczewski, DFL-Bloomington, can be the ranking minority member of the House Taxes Committee in 2015 and a lobbyist for hire on tax matters in 2016.
• Publish all information related to House spending, including legislators’ per diem, on a monthly basis. That’s the least that should be done. The way Minnesota compensates legislators is overdue for an overhaul; a constitutional amendment on the 2016 ballot that would take legislative pay decisions out of legislators’ hands ought to lead to reform.
• The Legislature has long exempted itself from the public-records requirements it imposes on other jurisdictions. Thissen recommends a study that would lead to a partial or complete lifting of that exemption in 2017.
These ideas won’t be popular among some legislators. They would break bad procedural habits acquired over many years — as Thissen, a 14-year legislator and a former House speaker, knows well. His critics are bound to ask why he did not press for these changes when his caucus was in charge of the House in 2013-14. Those critics would be well-advised to avoid defending last year’s indefensible end-of-session show. Instead, they should put forward improvement plans of their own, and promise Minnesotans that there will be no reprise of the 2015 finale.