By Robbie LaFleur
It’s easy to create a list of bills by author in the Legislature’s bill tracking system. How many of them became law? The bills that became law include a number in the “Law” column, indicating that they passed and received a chapter number in the annual Session Laws.
But the list of ‘laws passed’ is not complete – not because the system doesn’t work correctly, but because it is difficult to account for all the ways that language from a legislator might become law.
Some of the bills could have been incorporated into larger bills, such as an omnibus bill. For example, Rep. Kim Norton was the author of HF512 in 2015, establishing a child support work group. That bill did not pass, but the language was incorporated into SF1458, and passed into law, Chapter 71 of 2015.
Many times, when a separate bill is wrapped into a larger bill, a see reference will be listed on the status screen – but that doesn’t always work.
In 2015, Rep. Norton introduced HF39, designating Highway 14 as the Black and Yellow Trail. If you check the bill status system, it appears to be introduced, referred to committee, going no further. But it passed! (See article 3 of Chapter 287, and a photo of a sign on the completed trail.) It received a hearing and was included in the Omnibus transportation bill that year, even though there was no “see” reference in the bill tracking system.
As a legislator, what if you introduce a bill that is never heard in committee, yet it passes in the other body and is incorporated into an omnibus bill during conference committee? Is that your bill that passed?
Sometimes a legislator introduces a bill identical to one or many other bills - clone bills. If your bill is not the one that passes, is it legitimate to still consider the bill as one you have passed? Scott Magnuson, long-time Senate employee and legislation-watcher, has an opinion. He says no. The chief author of the bill that passes is the one who has done the hard part of taking it through all the committees. "If you are the chief author, you have to be passionate," Scott said.
Rep. Norton agrees with Scott that clones or bills that are filed as a courtesy and were never heard should not be claimed as passing a bill. On the other hand, she noted, “Sometimes an author researches an issue, files a bill, and gets a Senate author--but because of committee budgets or partisan politics, it may not be heard. If heard, it may not be included in the House Omnibus bill...BUT your Senate author may have better luck getting it included on the Senate side and it eventually passes. I believe that House author can/should take credit for that bill.”
A list of laws each member passed also doesn’t account for the work of legislators in committees and in floor session, where they track other members’ bills for language that may harm their districts, or craft amendments that help their districts.
While talking about the difficulty of definitive tracking, Scott Magnuson had a recommendation for every legislator who wants to carefully account for their work each session. Get a really good staff person who will track it for you, year by year.
By Robbie LaFleur
In the midst of today's serious floor debates, a little history break:
In today's "This Day in Minnesota History" page, the Minnesota Historical Society featured James Goodhue, founder of the first Minnesota newspaper, The Minnesota Pioneer (forerunner of today's Pioneer Press). It prompted a tweet by Vic Thorstenson, "Unfortunately, for Mr. Goodhue, he looks like he also encountered the first-ever barber in MN territory." That reminded me of an article I recently saw about a barber who practiced in the Central House Hotel in 1849, while looking for information on all the sites in which the Legislature has met. The very first territorial legislature met in the Central House Hotel in St. Paul, in 1849. Maybe Mr. Goodhue, and many of the very first legislators, frequented this barber? This is text from an ad in Mr. Goodhue's newspaper.
"William Armstrong, a Castillian by birth, continues to smooth the countenances of the male public at Central House, amputating the beard with the utmost facility, upon new and scientific principles. He also performs the operation of hair-cutting and hair dressing, in the latest fashion and most approved style of the art. Shampooing in the Asiatic method, as taught in Constantinople, is also his forte. It will be his delight to render these operations as agreeable as possible without the aid of chloroform."
Blegen, Theodore C. "Minnesota Pioneer Life as Revealed in Newspaper Advertisements," Minnesota History, v. 7, no. 2, p. 99-121.
A recent caller to the Library asked for help with the "MyBills" tracking service. It wasn't an IT or system problem - whew. Instead, the person following many bills wanted to learn more about what the notifications meant. "What does it mean if a bill is on the general register? What are general orders?" Perfectly logical questions!
We've updated the MyBills page to help people understand the process, by adding links to important background documents from the House and Senate.
MyBills House actions: General Register, Consent Calendar, Calendar for the Day, Supplemental Calendar for the Day, Fiscal Calendar, and Reports of Standing Committees. For background, see Legislative Procedure in the "Legislative Handbook" from the House Public Information Office.
MyBills Senate actions: General Orders, Consent Calendar, the Calendar, and Reports of Committees. For background, see "Inside the Minnesota Senate" from the Secretary of the Senate.
Here's another version of general orders -- in the historical image, "General Bosquet giving orders to his staff," from the Library of Congress photo archives.
By Robbie LaFleur
The Legislative Reference Library sometimes hears from people expressing a concern that too many laws are getting passed. “Why is the Legislature's answer to issues always more government”? As librarians, we don’t answer that sort of question philosophically! But we can supply tips to help people better understand the process.
You have to pass a law to repeal a law
When you hear that the Minnesota Legislature has passed a certain number of laws in a session, it does not mean that every provision in those laws is a new law. When you look at a session law, you will see that it may be creating new laws – but it may also be amending existing laws or repealing laws – and often, a combination of all of the above. Here is an example of a “new” law from 2015 that is repealing two existing sections of Minnesota Statutes.
How many new laws are created compared to how many laws are repealed each year?
The laws that govern Minnesota are compiled into the Minnesota Statutes. The Minnesota Office of the Revisor of Statutes provides this table to track law changes. Use the drop down box to view sessions back to 1994 to see how many MN Statutes were created (new), amended, or repealed in a particular legislative session.
Historical data on Session Laws passed
Here are links to the 80 session laws that passed during the 2015 Regular Session.
The number of session laws passed during each session of the Minnesota Legislature has dropped significantly during the past decades. Bar chart. Chart with numbers.
Remember, those statistics are the number of session laws passed, not the number of provisions within those session laws. A session law might be a single paragraph – or hundreds of pages.
The concern with passing too much legislation is long-standing. Here is an interesting quote by Thomas Jefferson:
"I am certainly not an advocate for frequent and untried changes in laws and constitutions. I think moderate imperfections had better be borne with; because, when once known, we accommodate ourselves to them, and find practical means of correcting their ill effects. But I know also, that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy, as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors." - Jefferson to H. Tompkinson (AKA Samuel Kercheval), July 12, 1816 (Last quote in this compilation)
By Elizabeth Lincoln
As the new branch of the Legislative Reference Library in the Minnesota Senate Building began to take shape, it became clear there would be a large blank wall on one side of the new Library. We started thinking of ways we could use this space--art exhibits maybe?
A chance encounter with Tom Olmscheid, long-time former House photographer, solidified a plan for the first exhibit. Tom's collection of photographs he has taken of town halls on election days over a number of years seemed fitting for an election year.
Mary Lahammer interviewed Tom soon after the installation and featured it a few weeks ago on Almanac. Scroll to 34 minutes to see the March 18th Almanac interview or come to the third floor of the Minnesota Senate Building to see Tom's photographs in person!