Top leaders in the GOP-led House and DFL Senate are teaming up to propose a legislative budget office that would provide an alternative to the cost estimates on bills now produced by the administration of DFL Gov. Mark Dayton.
The proposals come after occasional dust-ups by legislators over the years regarding the veracity of the fiscal notes that look at the possible costs of proposed legislation. The bills introduced Monday specifically require that the proposed Legislative Budget Office give legislators "nonpartisan, accurate and timely information" and conduct analysis "without regard to political factors."
Such cost estimates in Minnesota long have been the purview of the executive branch, where individual agencies and Minnesota Management and Budget experts produce the fiscal analyses of proposed bills.
John Pollard, a spokesman for MMB, defended the integrity of those analyses. "The governor, his staff, or even the commissioner of MMB do not have any influence of the content and determinations within fiscal notes," he said in a statement. "If a legislator believes the language or intent of a bill is not properly reflected in a fiscal note, we work with the legislator, the agency and their staff to sort out the issues."
Proponents say the measure would give the Legislature the same power as the executive branch to analyze potential costs — a model that exists in more than 30 states, according to a 2012 legislative audit on the fiscal-note process.
"The Legislative Budget Office is needed to ensure full independent analysis of proposals and budgets before the Legislature," Republican Speaker Kurt Daudt, one of the House bill sponsors, said in a statement. "This would take all politics out of debates between the executive branch and the legislative branch about fiscal impacts of budgets and legislative proposals.
House Majority Leader Joyce Peppin, R-Rogers, is a cosponsor with Daudt. The Senate bill sponsor is Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook.
"Minnesota is one of very few states where fiscal analyses are conducted by executive agencies," Bakk said in a statement to the Star Tribune. "Knowing that, it seemed worthwhile to explore this option in Minnesota. I was glad to learn that Speaker Daudt agreed this discussion was worth having."
In the past, legislators from both parties have sometimes questioned the veracity of fiscal notes. In 2011, when Republicans controlled the House and Senate, they questioned fiscal notes coming from MMB during budget negotiations.
Sen. Richard Cohen, DFL-St. Paul, said similar claims of potential bias in fiscal notes came from DFLers when Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty was in office. Cohen expressed concerns Monday that having a separate legislative fiscal note on bills might "overpoliticize" the process.
Late last week, Republicans challenged a fiscal note issued just hours ahead of a floor vote on a GOP-sponsored bill that would revise teacher seniority rules that guide layoffs. Rep. Jim Knoblach, R-St. Cloud, expressed skepticism of the $1 million projected cost attached to a bill that his caucus thought carried no costs.
In 2012, the Legislative Auditor's Office weighed in on fiscal notes and found that they were, for the most part, prepared with "plausible assumptions." It said that some notes could use more explanation, but that in recent years, under two administrations, there had been no instances "in which agency officials or staff from the governor's office have intervened inappropriately in the fiscal note process."