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29,000 legislative tapes!

By Elizabeth Lincoln

Library staff are excited to announce a new searchable database of 29,000 legislative audio files covering 1991-2003!

Until recently, tracking down the history of legislation often involved a trip to the Legislative Reference Library (LRL) or the Minnesota Historical Society (MHS)--or both! Before the Legislature began recording meetings digitally in 2004, all audio was recorded on cassette and reel-to-reel tapes.  Interest in researching these primary materials has not waned--legislative staff, state agency staff, attorneys, and private citizens continue to use these rich primary research materials.  But, the tapes were inconvenient to use and they took up enormous amounts of space at LRL and MHS.  

A 2017 appropriation allowed the Legislative Reference Library to undertake the digitization of 29,000 audio tapes.  This digitization project and resulting database enhances the existing collection of digital hearings and floor sessions, making these valuable primary records of the Legislature accessible to anyone at any time and preserving them into the future.  Researchers are now able to listen to all committee hearings and floor sessions back to 1991. The database draws upon other sources of information such as House and Senate floor logs and committee members for each standing committee.

For further information on researching legislative proceedings, consult the Legislative Reference Library’s legislative history guide and resource list or contact a librarian at 651-296-8338 or by email.


Legislative Staff Week!

By Elizabeth Lincoln

The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) designated December 4-8 as Legislative Staff Week.  NCSL's staff section of librarians, the Legislative Research Librarians, is a tight group.  Legislative librarians around the country use the listserv nearly daily to gain insight into other states' processes and gather state-by-state legislative information on behalf of legislators and staff in their own state.

The legislative librarians' group has a long history--even longer than NCSL.  An NCSL guide summarizes: "The impetus for LRL came from librarians who began meeting informally at the National Legislative Conference's Annual Meeting in 1968.  In 1975, when NCSL was established, LRL had already been together for seven years.  In 1978, LRL adopted bylaws and became an independent NCSL staff section."

Legislative libraries also have a long history.  Charles McCarthy was a college football star who was hired as a state documents librarian by the Wisconsin Free Library Commission in 1901.   McCarthy’s vision far exceeded the role assigned to him and he immediately began providing extensive assistance in obtaining information legislators needed. His service vision was a radical departure from the more traditional vision of libraries that focused more on collections. While he actively pursued a wide range of materials, especially current newspapers and magazines, the services he provided, including bill drafting, were heavily utilized and greatly appreciated by Wisconsin legislators.  For more information, read this article about Charles McCarthy in State Legislatures or an article about the Minnesota and Wisconsin legislative libraries in Jottings & Digressions.

One group of legislative staff has an even longer history--the American Society of Legislative Clerks and Secretaries was established in 1943.  Most of the eight other staff sections were established in the mid-1970s.

The legislative librarians have come to Minnesota twice in recent history.  The Minnesota Legislative Reference Library hosted the NCSL Legislative Research Librarians professional development seminar in 2009 and also hosted the librarians as part of NCSL's Legislative Summit in Minneapolis in 2014. 

The Senate’s annual Fiscal Review is one of the most heavily used publications in the Legislative Reference Library. The Library’s paper copies are lovingly worn and the digital archive, reaching back to the first publication in 1975, is an invaluable resource.

The 2017 Fiscal Review is the 40th edition, but you can’t quite call this an annual publication. It wasn't published in 2004 for reasons that are a mystery.  And anyone who can recall the state's financial situation in the early 1980s will understand why there was just one published for the years 1981-1984 with a revision published the next year.  Extreme budget shortfalls required two regular sessions and six special sessions in one biennium to resolve.  Librarians always start with the 1981-1984 edition when asked questions about this complex period of budget crisis.

To celebrate the recent release of the 2017 edition of Fiscal Review, the office of Senate Counsel, Research and Fiscal Analysis invites you to the satellite office of the Legislative Reference Library (3238 MSB) on Wednesday, September 27th at 10:30 am.  Doughnuts will be served!

What's the Library's Role in the Legislative Process?

By Elaine Settergren & Carol Blackburn

The Minnesota Legislative Reference Library would like to give a special thanks to the Senate Media team for choosing to feature the Legislative Reference Library (LRL) on the Senate’s Capitol Report program. They explored the library and spoke with librarians, seeking the uniqueness of the LRL’s services and collections. The resulting video introduces the viewer to the library and to the role it plays in the legislative process.

Since its establishment in 1969, the library has been the depository of reports mandated by the Legislature. The LRL is also required to identify and collect reports and publications produced by state government offices, and houses important legislative records including committee minute books. Our website links users to a wealth of information. From historical data to current events, our print and electronic collections—the premier Minnesota public policy collection--provide a permanent historical record of Minnesota’s state government.

The LRL staff’s primary focus is the information needs of legislators and legislative staff--and the specialized services we offer to help them keep up with ever-changing issues. While the Legislature is our priority, the Legislative Library and its unique collection, services, and website are available to all Minnesotans and are used by people around the state and country.

Each day, experienced, knowledgeable librarians receive numerous questions, some simple and others challenging; we direct users to information resources; we connect people to other agencies and organizations; we dive into Minnesota’s history and follow breaking news on Twitter—all part of the effort to provide the best service we can, to successfully fulfill our role in the Minnesota legislative process.

The video about the LRL, along with many other informative and educational Senate Media productions, is posted on YouTube as a part of its Capitol Report program and their Elements of Democracy Playlist.


28,000 Audiotapes!

By Elizabeth Lincoln

Since 2004, all Minnesota House and Senate hearings and floor debates have been digitally recorded and archived.  Researching legislation prior to 2004 requires a trip to the Minnesota Legislative Reference Library (LRL) or to the Minnesota Historical Society (MHS)--or both--to listen to audiotapes.

But soon that will change!  In 2017, the Minnesota Legislative Reference Library received an appropriation to digitize 28,000 tapes of legislative committee hearings and floor debates. The Library is seeking proposals by July 14, 2017 for the digitization of the audiotape collection. Further details are available in the request for proposal.

The House and Senate began recording all committee hearings and floor sessions in the mid-1970s.  The tapes were collected by LRL and, when space became an issue, older tapes were gradually transferred to MHS.  By the early 1990s many of the tapes were deteriorating and a number of years of tapes were destroyed.  The Minnesota Historical Society can no longer accommodate the 18,000 tapes currently housed there and began making plans several years ago to return the tapes to the Legislative Reference Library.  The 2017 appropriation allows the digitization of all existing legislative hearing and floor debate tapes.  Digitization of these auditotapes will make the primary records of the Legislature accessible to anyone at any time and preserves these recordings into the future.


A question legislative librarians are often asked in the waning days of legislative sessions is, "Can the Minnesota Legislature pass bills on the final day of a regular legislative session?". And each year, we research the question yet again to make sure we are providing the correct answer.

Minnesota's Constitution, Article 4, Section 21 states in part, "No bill shall be passed by either house upon the day prescribed for adjournment." When that section of the constitution was written, the constitution also established that the Minnesota Legislature would meet in regular session in odd-numbered years. With a single-year session, the "day prescribed for adjournment" was apparent.

Things changed in 1972 when Minnesota voters approved a proposed constitutional amendment to establish flexible, biennial sessions. (Minnesota House Public Information Services published an informative article in 1991 about the history of flexible sessions in Minnesota.) With the inaugural biennial legislative session in 1973/1974, for the first time in state history there was a "final" day in the first year and a "final" day in the second year. Were both days considered the "day prescribed for adjournment" per the state constitution? Or was the final day of the second year the official adjournment day? The question was answered by the Minnesota Supreme Court in its 1974 decision, State v. Hoppe: "... May 21, 1973 was not the day of final adjournment ... but was merely a temporary interim adjournment during the unitary biennial legislative session".

One final note. Since the advent of flexible sessions, the Legislature has met in regular session in each year of the biennium. But Article 4 Section 12 of the state's constitution does not mandate yearly sessions. It's possible that some future legislature will meet only one time during a biennium and that there will once again be a single, final "day prescribed for adjournment".

Representative Lyndon Carlson surpassed a number of records today!  He is now the longest serving House member - ever. He is also the longest serving member in the history of the Minnesota Legislature.

Three former legislators are tied for second-longest-serving legislator. Phyllis Kahn is the second longest serving member of the Minnesota House of Representatives and is tied in length of service with two legislators who served in both bodies--Anton J. Rockne and Carl Iverson.  (Anton J. Rockne has the longest Senate tenure.)  Check out the length of service for all legislators including those who have served just one day!



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.

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.


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)