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Frequently Asked Questions About the Minnesota Legislature

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About the Legislature

1. What is the structure and function of the Minnesota Legislature?

Answer

In order to understand the role of the Minnesota Legislature, it may be helpful to review basic government structure. Our democratic system of government is separated into different levels and branches. The three levels of government -- federal, state and local -- all function to meet separate responsibilities. Each level of government is made up of three separate branches, the executive, the legislative, and the judicial, with each exercising individual authority in order to serve the people of the community, state, and nation.

The responsibilities of each branch of government differ, and no branch of government is given power over another. This system of "checks and balances"" insures that no single group can dominate the workings of government and that no one part of government can dominate another part of government.

The legislative branch is responsible for the enactment and revision of laws. The United States Congress forms the laws at the national level, and the Minnesota Legislature is the lawmaking body for the State of Minnesota. Both Congress and the Minnesota Legislature consist of two bodies: a Senate and a House of Representatives. This two body system is referred to as a bicameral system.

The executive branch administers and executes the laws passed by the legislative branch. The President of the United States is the chief executive at the federal level, and the governor serves as the state's chief executive. They are aided by the officials appointed to head the various agencies and departments and by the other officials elected to the executive branch. For example the governor is assisted by the lieutenant governor, secretary of state, state treasurer, state auditor, and attorney general.

The judicial branch enforces the laws and insures that the interpretation of the law is in accordance with the U.S. and state constitutions. The federal and state court systems compose the judicial branch for those two levels of government.

The United States Congress
Many citizens confuse the elected officials who represent them in the state legislature with those who work for them in the U.S. Congress. At the national level, every citizen is represented by three persons -- two senators and one member of congress. While every state has two senators, the total number of members of congress representing each state varies in proportion to the state's population. In Minnesota, eight members are elected to the U.S. Congress. In all, the U.S. Senate has 100 senators and the U.S. House of Representatives has 435 members. Their responsibility is to concentrate on issues of national interest, such as federal tax policies, immigration laws and national defense. They are your voice in Washington, D.C.

State legislatures
Citizens in every state also elect officials to represent them at the state level. Those elected to the state's lawmaking body, referred to as Legislators, work on state issues, such as funding the elementary and secondary education system, setting state tax policy, and funding state human service programs.

The legislatures' size and structure vary among the different states. Nebraska's Legislature is unicameral (one body) and all the rest are bicameral. In some states the larger body is called the Assembly, rather than the House of Representatives.

2. Who determines the size of the Legislature?

Answer

The Minnesota Constitution states that the size of the Legislature must be prescribed by law, therefore the Legislature determines the size of the Legislature (Minnesota Constitution, Article IV - Legislative Department).

Legislative district lines are redrawn every ten years, following the decennial U.S. Census. Each state uses the census data to draw its legislative boundaries. In Minnesota, and in most other states, the Legislature is charged with redistricting. In nine states, it is done by an independent commission, and in Alaska, the governor must redistrict.

No matter who is charged with the task of drawing district boundaries, the final product often is challenged in court. Once thrust into the judicial system, the plan must meet strict criteria for approval. Redistricting plans have been ruled invalid for many reasons, including gerrymandering (creating oddly shaped districts to create a partisan advantage), compacting (concentrating voters of a single political persuasion into as few districts as possible), and fracturing (spreading voters of a single political persuasion among many districts to dilute their collective voting strength).

The courts have held that each district must be nearly equal in population size. With the advent of computer technology, this standard is not hard to meet.

The 1991 Minnesota legislative redistricting plan, although altered slightly by a three-member court panel, was the first to be upheld by the judicial branch since 1913.

A special redistricting judicial panel had a hearing on plans proposed by Governor Dayton and the Legislature on Jan. 4, 2012. At 1 p.m. on Tuesday, February 21, 2012 the five-judge panel released the state's new redistricting maps. The 2012 maps are posted on the Court's Special Redistricting Panel website.

To learn more about redistricting, visit the comprehensive redistricting Web page from the Legislative Coordinating Commissions Subcommittee on Geographic Information Systems Office. You can download a PDF of current district maps here.

Minnesota State Legislature