Senate Majority Leader Jeremy Miller, R-Winona, and his GOP caucus have walked away from a special session, leaving negotiations unfinished on billions in investments in important priorities for Minnesotans, like education, affordable child care and infrastructure.
The budget surplus negotiations are the perfect illustration of why a full-time Legislature is so necessary. We were disappointed earlier this spring to see former Reps. Tom Berkelman and Janet Entzel and former Gov. Arne Carlson defend restrictions on when Minnesota's Legislature can meet ("Reform the Legislature, don't make it full time," Opinion Exchange, May 5).
Today's lawmakers are subject to outdated session restrictions established when our state had 3% of the population it has today. Our economy has become more complex, the challenges facing the Legislature more varied. Our mandated adjournment date makes it difficult to meet the needs of a modern state.
We introduced a constitutional amendment this year to give voters a chance to simply remove the required May adjournment date. Allowing lawmakers to meet year-round as needed would give them more opportunity to find solutions to complex issues and bipartisan compromises. Other comparable states, such as Wisconsin, Ohio and Michigan, have already moved to full-time legislatures.
The budget surplus negotiations demonstrate the problem with our current system. Budget forecasts are released in late February and the Legislature adjourns in May. This year, legislative leaders and Gov. Tim Walz reached an agreement on how to divide the surplus on a Tuesday and the Legislature had just five days to negotiate $8 billion worth of legislation before the required adjournment on Sunday. Many issue areas struggled to resolve differences with so little time to work.
The shortened time frames of legislative session also force the use of omnibus bills — legislative packages that may contain dozens of bills — to save time. This frustrates members of the public who have difficulty tracking individual issues of concern. Moving to a full-time Legislature would give Minnesotans a greater voice in their government.
The omnibus bill approach also frustrates legislators who are forced to cast one vote on bills with dozens of provisions, some of which they may like and some they may dislike.
The current system also puts more power in the hands of the executive vs. the Legislature, the branch closest to the people. Once the Legislature has adjourned, only the governor can call it back for a special session. Also, any legislative oversight required in the interim must be saved until the following January when we reconvene.
Our status as a part-time Legislature makes it difficult for many Minnesotans to become or to remain lawmakers. While most lawmakers need a second job to make a living, our responsibilities continue past May. We work on bills and serve constituents year-round, so we need jobs with flexibility, which many careers don't provide. Skilled legislators frequently leave because it's difficult to balance other employment with what is for all practical purposes a full-time job already.
We're proud to serve with a historic number of legislators of color, Indigenous legislators, and women, but we know Minnesota can do more to improve representation. If we transition to a full-time Legislature, more people will have the opportunity to serve their communities and we'd have better representation of Minnesota as a whole, not just those who can afford to work part-time.
Berkelman, Carlson and Entzel suggest many reforms we agree with and have co-sponsored legislation to achieve, including public financing for elections and an independent commission for redistricting. But these steps aren't sufficient. Our legislative schedule remains a relic of the past and is undermining our ability to achieve results for Minnesotans.
The challenges Minnesotans face don't stop in May. Our work shouldn't either.
Lindsey Port, DFL-Burnsville, is a member of the Minnesota Senate. Jamie Long, DFL-Minneapolis, is a member of the Minnesota House.