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News analysis: The art of building a bill

ST. PAUL — You can just see the commercial: “State Rep. Michael Beard refused to vote for a bill giving Minnesota’s transportation system a much-needed $50 million boost.”

Such commercials deliver only part of the story. Apart from being part of campaigns, the advertisements also illustrate how bills are compiled.

In the transportation finance example, there could be a commercial like that against a lawmaker such as Beard, R-Shakopee, (but there won’t be since Beard is not running again) even though he supports the bulk of the bill the House transportation finance committee backed.

Beard said he liked many provisions in the bill, like increasing spending and actions to improve oil transportation safety.

However, he said he would have voted against the bill because it includes too many “intrusions” into railroad operation. The former railroad worker said the bill would be state overreach in provisions such as requiring every rail yard to have solar-powered lights, even if a yard was never used at night.

The example illustrates something that happens all the time in the Minnesota Legislature: So many provisions are lumped into a giant bill, called an omnibus bill, that things like the “intrusions” cannot be accepted by some lawmakers and result in votes against the entire bill.

The transportation funding example is a subset of what will happen this year. Legislative leaders plan to dump all spending bills into the coming days, so there will not be votes on individual bills such as those funding transportation, health, public safety and education. That gives lawmakers two choices: yes or no. If they do not like spending in one area, they must accept it to also approve things they like or to vote against the overall budget bill, which means supporting something they do not like.

Omnibus bills

The public may expect legislators to vote on each individual spending bill, but that would not work well and could lead to extreme budget problems.

In the transportation example, House leaders gave the committee $50 million of budget surplus money to spend this year, after the main budget passed a year ago.

Had each spending proposal moved through the House on its own, there would not have been coordination needed to meet the $50 million target.

For instance, most lawmakers appear to be very concerned about crude oil transportation safety. Had a bill funding oil disaster preparedness advanced early this legislative session, it is easy to see that legislators could have opted to use most of the $50 million for that.

Rep. Barb Yarusso, D-Shoreview, pushed an idea to send more money to state and local transportation departments to help fill an abundance of potholes caused by the polar vortex winter. The final House bill tossed $15 million at potholes, money that would not have been available if lawmakers already spent most of the $50 million on oil disaster programs.

If the oil safety provision had eaten up most of the funds, there may not have been $32,000 to provide some greater Minnesota residents free rides to the polls, $15 million to improve key highways around the state may not have been available and a $2 million boost for Capitol Security protection may have died.

Considering all potential spending at once allowed the transportation committee to balance all the requests and divvy up the money available.

Policy provisions

A tradition that irks some lawmakers is folding policy items with no government cost into spending bills.

In the transportation package, that happened with a proposal by Rep. Jason Metsa, D-Virginia: Require rail yards to install lights.

The provision fits well with Iron Range lawmakers’ push to increase solar power use by requiring Minnesota-made solar panels to be used to light rail yards and stands a better chance of passing as a minor part of the overall bill.

Many such provisions are put in budget bills, often with little or no discussion.

Member bills

Committee chairmen often rattle off a list of “member bills” they have included in omnibus measures, usually fairly narrow provisions meant to address issues brought up by constituents.

Rep. Mary Murphy, D-Hermantown, had such an issue in the transportation bill to allow signs along U.S. 61 directing motorists to specific Two Harbors businesses.

One business interested in a sign is a hardware store owned by someone she knows.

“It is really, truly a hardware store where you find all kinds of things that you need,” she told committee members.

A Minnesota Department of Transportation official said federal regulations do not allow advertising signs, but the committee retained the Murphy provision, which is more likely to survive in an overall bill than if it were a standalone measure.

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.