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Good luck tracking Minnesota Legislature

Minnesota's Legislature is tough to comprehend.

Just ask some freshmen Democratic senators who the other day became confused as green "yes" and red "no" vote lights began flashing on giant tally boards on either side of the Senate chamber when their tax bill vote was being counted.

Some Republican senators played games with rookies by pushing their green buttons, looking like they were voting in favor of the bill. They kept their fingers on the "no" button, intending to flip their votes at the last second.

It worked.

As the green votes mounted, some Democrats decided that voting against the tax bill would be better for their areas, mostly with large populations of wealthy voters who would be hit by new taxes. So they switched to red, at the same time as the Republicans, appearing to defeat the tax bill.

After an abruptly called Democratic meeting, the bill came back up and received enough votes to pass.

In the Minnesota Legislature, nothing is dead until lawmakers go home for the year, even if a committee or the House or Senate votes it down.

Confusion starts at the very beginning, bill introductions.

A reader recently suggested that we include bill numbers when we write stories about legislation. Great idea, but trying to look up a bill could produce more confusion than solid information.

Of about 3,500 bills introduced so far this year, very few received committee hearings, let alone full House or Senate debate. In most years, 100 to 250 bills are signed into law.

It often is impossible to know if a bill was introduced just to please a constituent (with no plans to debate the issue), only to begin discussion about an issue (like a recent medical marijuana bill that sponsors have no plans to pursue this year) or is a serious attempt to change law.

Some bills contain many new initiatives. Others delete a line of law here, change a word there, and in order to see what they really do, one needs to go to each line of law that the bill references.

A bill very well could be little more than a placeholder. Often, the first committee hearing features what is called a "delete-all" or "delete-everything" amendment that turns the original measure into an entirely new bill.

Bills keep changing as they move through the process, so much so that lobbyists sometimes discuss provisions that already have been amended so their comments no longer apply. If that can happen to people paid well to follow legislation, pity the poor average Jane or Joe trying to keep up.

A House bill to raise the minimum wage is a good example of how you can read a bill one day and find it is quite a bit different the next day. It is hard for someone looking online to figure that out unless they have deep knowledge of the process.

Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, took his wage bill into the Ways and Means Committee, which amended the bill to require 12-week leaves for new parents (double current requirements) and for overtime be paid to workers who put in more than 40 hours a week (now it is 48 hours).

Minnesotans often read news stories early in the year about new bills, but nothing more appears for weeks or months. Or ever.

An example comes from an email recently sent to an editor wondering about a measure to allow family child day care center providers to join unions. Like most major non-budget bills, it got pushed out of the way after some early committee hearings so spending and tax measures could advance.

Most bills do not receive full House and Senate votes until about this time of the session, producing long lists of bills to debate in a short amount of time (the Legislature must adjourn May 20). That often leads to bills simply falling by the wayside.

The tax bill was one that Democrats said must pass.

Veteran Capitol observers knew the senators would return to the chamber after Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, took senators to the meeting, vote to reconsider its demise and then pass the bill.

The average Minnesotan watching thought the tax bill had failed. Several viewers complained when television coverage ended at 6 p.m., before the final vote that boosted the tax bill to its eventual 35-31 victory.

The tax bill is but one example of legislative complexities the average Minnesotan would struggle to follow. Those who want to try can head to and surf, but they need to have plenty of time and understanding of the process to figure it all out.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.