As we move into the final weeks of the legislative session, none of the finance bills to run state government have been heard on the House floor.
During the last campaign cycle, people complained about Omnibus-prime — a 990-page bill that contained provisions for education, transportation, the environment, health and human services and much more, even though Minnesota’s state Constitution states (Article 4 Section 17): “No law shall embrace more than one subject, which shall be expressed in its title.”
In 1858, while debating the proposed Constitution, Bradly Meeker moved to include the language that is Art 4 Sec 17. His reasoning was as follows: “My object in moving this amendment, is to guard against a practice which has been to a greater or less extent, prevalent in this Territory, as well as in other States, of grouping together several different subjects in one bill, and passing them through by means of a system known as log-rolling.”
For over 100 years, the Legislature would push the limit, and the state Supreme Court would strike down legislation that had multiple subjects. This system of checks and balances worked so well that in the 1973-74 biennium, the Legislature passed, and the governor signed into law, 1,366 different bills.
In Wass vs. Anderson (1977), the Supreme Court started to pry open the single-subject rule. The court held that the single subject of “transportation” was not too broad, and anything transportation-related could be in the bill. This precedent established the current style of committee omnibus bills.
In Townsend vs. State (2009), the court reaffirmed a liberal, as opposed to strict, reading of Art 4 Sec 17. In Otto vs. Wright (2018), the court ruled that “operations of state government” is not too broad a subject. This ruling castrated the single-subject clause, as everything the Legislature does can be construed as an “operation of state government.”
In the 2017/2018 biennium, the Legislature set a modern-day record for fewest bills passed — 189. Our government is not becoming smaller or less complicated. What it is doing is becoming more closed, less transparent and swampier.
Nineteen co-authors from both parties and I have a proposed constitutional amendment to rewrite the single-subject clause. The proposed language would prevent bills from being combined after introduction. This change would allow people to follow any bill of interest from submission to signing and not have to wonder if it was included in an omnibus bill or just died in committee.
The second part of the proposal would allow the courts to reject any finance bill without being the responsible party in a government shutdown. It would continue funding, of the stricken measure(s), at 95 percent of the previous biennium, allowing for continued operation until the Legislature can be convened and authorize funding in a manner that will pass constitutional muster.
If we are ever to return to a government that serves the people, instead of the people serving the government, this is the one thing that must change. The return of single-subject bills must come to pass. Voters need to be able to hold their legislators accountable. We, the elected officials, cannot be held accountable as long as omnibus bills exist.
The Legislature is like a drug addict. We know we need to stop, but can’t. The Supreme Court has been our enabler. We will need a citizen intervention.
Encourage your representatives and senators to co-author HF986 or the Senate companion SF2187.
Cal Bahr, R-East Bethel, is a member of the Minnesota House.