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Capitol Chatter: Single subject a tough legal subject

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ST. PAUL — One of the most discussed provisions of the Minnesota Constitution is a requirement that every legislative bill may contain only one subject.

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It is a provision similar to constitutions in about 40 other states, but there is no solid definition of "subject."

That means former state Rep. Jim Knoblach, R-St. Cloud, has a tough hill to climb if he expects to stop construction on a new state Senate office building. He claims in a lawsuit he filed that the Legislature and Gov. Mark Dayton violated the single-subject requirement and the $63 million building and $26.5 million of associated parking facilities should not be funded.

A California Supreme Court justice once said: "The term ‘subject’ is problematic ... because almost any two legislative measures may be considered part of the same subject if that subject is defined with sufficient abstraction."

Before he was elected governor, Tim Pawlenty wrote in Bench and Bar of Minnesota that the single-subject rule has been "interpreted broadly and the courts have indicated it is only necessary that all matters within a legislative act fall under one ‘general idea.’ In denying single-subject challenges, the Minnesota Supreme Court has gone so far as to observe that the common thread between topics within a legislative act need only be a mere ‘filament.’ "

The single-subject issue regularly is discussed among legislators because they tend to lump dozens of bills, or more, together in gigantic "omnibus" measures that can fill hundreds of pages

Usually, omnibus bills involve some general topic, such as health and human services funding. But they also may contain policy items not directly related to funding, or even to the general bill topic.

Such cases often launch political debates, with someone against the bill alleging that it violates the single-subject clause.

But lawmakers who oppose a multiple-subject bill one time may support the next one.

When a reporter asked him questions as he announced his lawsuit, Knoblach admitted that as a lawmaker he had voted for bills that some had said violated the constitutional provision.

A court insider said judges often leave definition of "single subject" up to lawmakers, even though a couple of cases in the past decade overturned a law based on that provision. Many more such cases were rejected.

For a while in Minnesota, judges tended to either keep a law in force or overturn the whole thing. But in recent years they have had less hesitation overturning just a portion of the law.

That is what Knoblach seeks. He only wants the $90 million stopped, although as a Republican he also would love to see more than $2 billion in tax increases contained in the bill also erased.

His attorney, Erick Kaardal, said he can see Ramsey County District Court deciding the case in half a year. But appeals could last much longer, even after the planned 2015 construction completion date.

Celebrating legacy

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources says a constitutional amendment voters approved in 2008 is providing lots of money for outdoors programs.

The so-called legacy amendment raised the state sales tax slightly, sending money to outdoors and arts programs such as the Minnesota Prairie Chicken Society.

"Thanks to legacy amendment funding, society members are doing more than raising awareness of the bird’s precarious plight," the DNR reports in one of several news releases celebrating the amendment’s fifth anniversary. "They are also aggressively improving habitat by using a small grants program managed by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources."

Conservation groups have received state grants from $5,000 to $400,000 due to the amendment.

The DNR promotes widely divergent accomplishments that the amendment has allowed, such as improved rivers for trout; better water, land and forest habitat; and expanded hunting.

Northern Minnesota’s forests have received protection, the DNR said.

State to pay legal bill

The state will pay $60,000 in attorney fees for Minnesotans who fought a governor’s executive order that set up the prospects of a union for owners of some home-based child care centers.

Those against Gov. Mark Dayton’s order won a court battle, claiming the governor did not have legal authority to issue such an order.

A state court ordered the $60,000 to be paid with taxpayers’ money. Those fighting Dayton originally wanted more than three times that amount.

"This is a victory for the hardworking child care providers of Minnesota. Gov. Dayton’s attempt to unilaterally impose a union election on child care providers needlessly wasted $60,000 of taxpayer dollars as he defended his action in court," said state Rep. Mary Franson, R-Alexandria. "Now the taxpayers are on the hook to clean up his mistake."

This year’s Legislature approved a bill that was like the order Dayton issued. However, a federal judge suspended any union election under the new law until the U.S. Supreme Court decides a similar Illinois case.

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Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.
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