The last weeks of Minnesota's legislative session have lawmakers scrambling to finalize plans for spending about $46 billion. Dozens of big decisions loom on programs and policies that affect people in every corner of the state.
But try to track that progress and you'll find all kinds of hurdles. Millions in spending provisions and hundreds of policy changes are tucked inside massive "omnibus" bills that number hundreds of pages. Committee meetings are often called on a few minutes' notice and frequently stretch into the evening. Major changes spring from closed-door meetings scheduled with no public notice, sometimes on weekends.
Ambre Quinn of Minneapolis started following the Legislature this year, one of the many Minnesotans inspired by recent political history to keep closer tabs on elected officials. Having developed an interest in a couple of issues, Quinn has tracked bills online, called her state representatives and signed up for updates from several organizations that track legislation.
But she said it's "really close to impossible" to stay fully up to speed — much less know the right moment to speak up, with just two weeks left in the session and the most important negotiations happening out of public view.
"It's just really, really hard to know if you're getting everything," Quinn said, "and you know you probably aren't."
It's not a new problem at the Capitol. Every legislative session, leaders from both parties pledge to make the process more transparent and accessible to their constituents. As this year's session got underway last January, leaders of the Legislature's Republican majority promised more transparency and accessibility than recent years.
And they succeeded in setting a fast-paced agenda that had lawmakers more quickly wrapping up their initial spending blueprints before an April break. That won acclaim from members of both parties. The goal was to give the public a longer time to air out issues before final decisions are made.
"I think we've done it early, that we've done it in public," said Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa. "You still have some of your negotiations that you're working behind the scenes … that's never going to change, that part of it. But there is definitely a greater openness to what we're doing."
But a fast start doesn't ensure a tidy finish — or a process that's easy for everyone to follow.
Some initiatives get lengthy hearings and multiple votes before they end up in a big budget bill. Other provisions also end up in those so-called omnibus bills with little public notice or opportunity to comment.
Then there's the high-profile issues, like the GOP effort this year to block cities from setting workplace standards like minimum wages or mandated sick leave, that get lots of attention and debate only to be put on indefinite hold. Frequently, that's because legislative leaders want to use an issue as a bargaining chip in final negotiations.
As the end of a session approaches, most of the big decisions about what gets a vote and what doesn't are left to a core group of legislative leaders and committee chairs, most from the majority party. Rep. Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, a former House minority leader, said that makes it even harder for people inside and outside the Capitol to follow.
"It's challenging for legislators who are not right in the middle of it to follow, and the public is one [more] step removed," he said.
Thissen has proposed broader access to documents, records and activities of the Legislature, which doesn't operate under the same kind of open-records and meetings rules that city and county governments must follow. He said part of the reason the process becomes so hard to track at the end is because lawmakers are introducing an overwhelming number of bills. As of Friday, House lawmakers had introduced 2,684 bills this session. State senators introduced another 2,375.
"The committee process now has become much more of a bill-churning factory," he said.
That makes things rushed for both lawmakers and people who want to come to the Capitol to testify on specific issues. Katie Drahos, a retail worker and a member of Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, started following state politics for the first time when legislators drafted bills to block Minneapolis, St. Paul and other cities from passing wage and sick-leave rules. She said she was pleased to learn she could attend and participate in legislative hearings, but frustrated when committees rushed through public testimony or took lengthy meal breaks during meetings.
Drahos said she had to miss work and show up late to a shift so she could testify at meetings called with little advance notice — something many people can't afford to do.
"I'm someone that's lucky enough to be able to do that in the retail world, but most people cannot do that," she said.
Both Thissen and Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, co-chairwoman of the committee finalizing the education spending bill, agree that the ever-growing omnibus bills make things hard to navigate for outsiders. It can also insulate lawmakers from accountability on specific matters.
Nelson believes policy matters should be voted on individually, while spending proposals can be more easily lumped together.
"The bigger the omnibus bill, the harder it is for your constituents to know where you stand on a particular issue that's important to them," she said.
Nelson also proposed a change in legislative rules that would force lawmakers to adhere to a specific schedule for the budget-setting process. That idea hasn't gained traction in the past, but Nelson said this year's speedier schedule is evidence that more people are interested in getting things done on time and in public.
The House-Senate committees, working both in public and private, finished up much of their work early last week. That means the budget wrangling has moved almost entirely behind closed doors as Gazelka, House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, and DFL leaders meet privately with DFL Gov. Mark Dayton to reach agreements on how much the state should spend, and where.
If they strike spending deals, then committees will meet again. It's unlikely there will be much time at that point to hear from the public.
Erin Golden • 612-673-4790