Rep. Patricia Mueller: A return to legislative transparency

Published 6:30 am Saturday, August 28, 2021

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When I ran for the legislature, one of my goals was to make the process accessible and transparent for Minnesotans, and to bring the voice of the district into bill discussions in order to pass the best bills possible. Since being elected, I learned the process is neither accessible nor transparent.

Over the last year, we have seen bills being negotiated by three people in secret. This is a result of both altered processes because of the pandemic, as well as the continued practice of creating omnibus bills. While omnibus bills with wide-reaching subjects have been upheld by the courts in the past, that does not mean they are the right way to legislate.

The committee process of presenting and debating bills is important. Legislators who are often experts in a certain area create legislation inspired by suggestions from constituents. It is during these committee hearings that deep discussion and debate can vet the proposed language and it is during these committee hearings that the public can give their feedback. This public feedback normally includes experts and/or people who would be affected by the proposed bill. This past year, there was far too little time spent in open committee, taking testimony from the public and experts, and far too much time hammering out bills in private between top stakeholders and legislative leadership. The open process laid out in House and Senate rules, while it is not perfect, is far better than the conduct we’ve seen since the Legislative session began in January of 2020.

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Upholding an open committee process must also be coupled with the return to single-subject bills. We have seen historically low numbers of standalone bills passed over the last sessions. Instead, there were numerous omnibus bills, packed with policies and finance articles that spanned huge subject areas. The courts have upheld omnibus bills as meeting the single-subject rule by saying that, if the subject is contained in the title of the bill, it counts as a single subject. However, even the bill titles routinely span multiple pages.

It is incredibly important that legislators have the ability to vote on bills individually, instead of having hundreds of standalone bills crammed into one omnibus bill. There are often many positive, widely-supported bills in any given omnibus, but the presence of “poison pills,” or policies that are bad for a specific district or for our state in general, makes the bill impossible to vote for. That is the reason I voted against several omnibus bills that were in front of the House this past year. While each bill contained policies I would have loved to vote for, the policies that would have hurt our community and Minnesotans across the state made them impossible for me to support.

Closed door meetings and bills spanning hundreds of pages are not how to write good legislation. Public hearings out in the open with input and debate along with single subject bills are the best way to create a transparent process and effective legislation.