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Commentary: New House rules make Legislature more open

Former Chief Clerk of the Minnesota House Ed Burdick said, "The vitality of government flourishes when public officials continually seek to better the institutions they serve. What's essential, however, is a willingness to look for weaknesses or to identify processes to be revamped. Otherwise, policymakers end up trying to operate modern legislatures with old rules and procedures."

I first heard this quote from a legislative expert from the National Conference of State Legislatures during one of eight hearings our House Government Operations and Reform Committee held since 2007 to examine the rules and legislative procedures we use in the Minnesota Legislature.

After listening to hours of testimony from the public, legislative experts, current and former legislators, House staff, and lobbyists, our committee recommended over 80 changes to our Permanent House Rules in order to improve our legislative process in Minnesota, making it more open to the public. A week ago we adopted over 50 of those recommendations, marking the most significant changes to the House rules in over 20 years.

Several of the changes our committee recommended will make it easier for the public to track and provide input on legislation. Rule changes include more closely aligning the work of House and Senate committees, reducing the total number of committees, requiring committees to list agendas further in advance, and providing advance on major amendments that are to be considered.

As a result, bills will travel through fewer committees and it will be easier for the public to provide input on a given issue because more information will be available before legislative action is taken.

We made many other rule changes to improve our time management in the work we conduct on the House floor. We have finite resources to serve the people, and if we allow infinite discussion on the floor, our system breaks, which it has over the past few years.

For example, last year we debated one omnibus bill alone for over 18 hours and voted on over 150 amendments. We end up voting on amendments that the public has not had the opportunity to provide input and legislators vote on bills and amendments they haven't even read or fully understand.

The changes we made to the rules direct more of the legislative work to be conducted in committees where the public can weigh in and legislators can spend adequate time debating and addressing issues. We also added a time management component to the floor sessions to prioritize the limited time we have available, a rule that 90% of other state legislatures already have in place.

As elected public officials, we have a choice to be statesman or politicians and too often over the last few years we have slipped in this regard. The rules that have been in place for the last decade or so have facilitated that slip. We need to return the Minnesota House to its tradition of a responsible public body so that when we stand up on the House floor we argue for the betterment of our state because we've done our work in committee, because we have had public input, and because we understand what we are voting on and the impact it will have on our constituents.

This type of change won't occur overnight, but the new rules we have implemented are a significant step in the right direction.

Gene Pelowski, DFL-Winona, is a member of the Minnesota House and chairman of the House Government Operations, Reform, Technology and Elections Committee.