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Frequently Asked Questions About the Minnesota Legislature

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1. What is a conference committee?


It is a committee made up of members from each house appointed to reconcile the differences between two versions of a bill that has been passed by both bodies. Each conference committee has either three or five members from both the House and the Senate.

2. How are committee chairs selected? How are members assigned to committees?


Each biennium the leaders in the House and the Senate set the number and scope of the standing committees and establish committee chairs according to which party is in the majority. Whichever party holds the most seats in either the House or the Senate is considered the Majority Caucus.

In the Senate the majority caucus elects a majority leader, who is also chair of the Rules and Administration Committee. Two other chairs are elected by the entire caucus, the chair of the Tax Committee and the Chair of the Finance Committee. Other chairs are selected by an organizational committee of the majority caucus. Membership on the committees is according to the proportion of each caucus. The minority caucus may offer suggestions of individual members for the minority representation on each committee. The minority caucus also names a "minority lead" on each committee. The Rules and Administration Subcommittee on Conference Committees selects members for conference ommittees. In addition, no Senator may serve as the chair of a specific committee or one under its jurisdiction for more than three Senate terms.

In the House, the Speaker chooses the committee chairs and appoints members of each committee. Each member is allowed to state his or her preference. In deciding on a committee chair, the speaker usually chooses a senior member with some expertise in the committee's work, but not always. There is no time limit for House members to serve as chair of a committee. Ideally, committee memberships reflect the balance of DFL and Republican members in the House. Each committee, therefore, would be a representative sample of the whole body. Conference committee members are also appointed by the Speaker.

3. How many members are on each committee? How many committees may each member serve on?


In the House, committees range in size from 10 to 25 members. Each member usually serves on three to five committees so he or she is able to focus on a few areas of policy development.

Membership on Senate committees ranges from 11 to 20. Each member generally serves on five or six different committees.

4. What is the purpose of a committee? What actions can committees take?


It is the job of each committee to hold public hearings on bills, to put each bill into its best form, and to recommend to the full body only those bills that the committee feels merit further consideration. The committee takes testimony from the public, bill sponsors, and experts in the areas the bill affects.

Committees have a number of choices for action, including the following: amending the bill, combining two or more bills under one file number, sending more detailed or complex bills to a subcommittee for further examination, recommending a bill to pass as introduced, recommending it be passed as amended, sending it to another committee with recommendation to pass, sending it to another committee without recommendation to pass, or killing the bill by voting it down, tabling it, delaying action, ignoring it, or returning it to its author.

5. May I testify at a committee hearing?


Yes. Members of the general public are encouraged to testify before committees, though testimony must be arranged with committee staff prior to a scheduled hearing. Committees primarily focus hearings on particular bills, though occasionally they discuss issues of broad interest within the committee's jurisdiction. It's best not to appear to testify at a committee on the day it is scheduled to hear a particular bill or discuss a particular topic without previously contacting the committee staff or your representative. Call House Public Information Services at (651) 296-2146 or Senate Information (651) 296-0504 to find the phone numbers for committee staff or to receive a standing committee schedule.

Here are 10 simple suggestions to make it easier to get involved:

1. ARRIVE EARLY. Getting to the meeting early will give you a chance to survey the terrain, identify legislators, and to make last-minute changes to your presentation.

2. CONTACT THE COMMITTEE'S ADMINISTRATOR OR LEGISLATIVE ASSISTANT. If you want to testify, make sure you are on the committee meeting agenda. It's best to contact the committee a day or two before the hearing to do this. But, time permitting, it's possible to sign up and testify on same day of the hearing.

3. INTRODUCE YOURSELF. When speaking to the committee, clearly identify yourself and the organization you represent, if any. Then clearly state your position on the bill before the committee.

4. SPEAK THROUGH THE COMMITTEE CHAIR. All questions and answers during committee hearings are routed through the committee chair. Address the chair as "Madame Chair" or "Mr. Chair." This makes it easier to follow the testimony when listening to tapes of recorded committee meetings.

5. DON'T BE INTIMIDATED. This is a citizen Legislature. Representatives are your friends and neighbors and they want to hear what you have to say. Just state your case clearly and in simple terms as you would to anyone.

6. BE BRIEF. Make your key points as concisely as possible. Provide specific information about why your position is in the state's best interest. Legislators may want to know what, if anything, has been done in other states, what the costs might be, and what groups support or oppose your proposal. If you know the answers, include them in your statement.

7. BE PREPARED TO ANSWER QUESTIONS. The best way to make your case is to provide straightforward answers to legislators' questions. If you don't know the answer, say so. If possible, find the answer and pass it on to committee members.

8. WRITTEN SUMMARIES. You may want to have copies of a concise summary of your key points to hand out to legislators, staff and the news media. Some legislators say a clearly written letter, or issue sheet, is the most effective way of gaining support.

9. OFFER TO HELP. Citizens play a key role in shaping state policy. Ask if there is anything you can do to help get the proposal in question approved or defeated.

10. MUTUAL RESPECT. Your views are important and you have a right to be treated courteously by all members and staff. Likewise, legislators are more apt to respond to polite treatment than to browbeating. There are many sides to every issue and each one has merit. Understand the difficult position legislators have in reaching their decisions.

If you need accommodations such as sign language interpreters or large print materials, call (651) 296-4860 as far in advance as possible.

House Public Information Services has created a series of short videos about testifying before a committee.

6. How can I find the laws governing the Legislature?


The Minnesota Statutes, including Chapter 3 and Chapter 3A, and the Minnesota Constitution , including Article IV, are available online through the Legislature's Web site. The print volumes of the Laws of Minnesota and Minnesota Statutes are available at many public libraries, as well as the Minnesota Law Library and the Legislative Reference Library.

7. Are committee hearings open to the public?


Yes, all committee hearings are open to the public - even conference committee hearings. In addition, all committee hearings are taped. Since 2000 select coverage of the House audio and video and Senate hearings and floor sessions are available over the Internet. Complete coverage began in 2004 for the House and in 2005 for the Senate. For information on listening to audiotapes for earlier years, contact the Legislative Reference Library at (651) 296-8338.

8. Are there any legislative calendar deadlines?


There is no yearly deadline for the introduction of bills. However, each year the Legislature establishes deadlines for committee action on bills. The Legislature shall establish by concurrent resolution deadlines for each regular session. The deadlines do not apply to the House committees on Capital Investment, Ways and Means, Taxes, or Rules and Legislative Administration, nor to the Senate committees on Capital Investment, Finance, Taxes, or Rules and Administration.

Committee deadlines are announced during the first half of a session in order to winnow the list of topics to be dealt with that year.

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