Legislature working at 'frenetic' pace

Minnesotans who want their lawmakers to work quickly this year should be feeling pretty good. But sticklers for a slow, deliberative process might be suffering from heartburn after witnessing the first six weeks of the legislative session. The 20...

Minnesotans who want their lawmakers to work quickly this year should be feeling pretty good.

But sticklers for a slow, deliberative process might be suffering from heartburn after witnessing the first six weeks of the legislative session.

The 2006 Legislature is moving at such a fast pace lawmakers say they don't have time to thoroughly study some issues before voting. Crafting laws at breakneck speed means depending on key legislators to fix problems with bills prior to full House or Senate debates, lawmakers admitted.

"It's frenetic," Rep. Frank Moe, DFL-Bemidji, said recently of the session pace. One solution is to rely on summaries of some bills before final votes are cast, Moe said.

"There is less review when things are moving fast," added Sen. Rod Skoe, DFL-Clearbrook.


In recent weeks lawmakers rushed to meet three important committee deadlines and pass several high-profile bills, such as a proposal to further limit government's ability to seize private land. Just hours before the Easter/Passover break began Wednesday, the House approved its plan to pay for state construction and highway projects - the Legislature's main responsibility this session. The Senate approved its own version.

The Legislature's schedule has been so busy in an unusually short session that committee hearings have started early and run late. With conflicting schedules, lawmakers bounce from one hearing to another. They catch only parts of debate on various issues ranging from conservation funding to sports stadium plans to property tax relief.

The pace is too quick for some.

Sen. Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point, said she wasn't comfortable with how fast some proposals were introduced and voted out of a House committee she belongs to. Bills were approved even though they needed more work, she said.

"That's typically not what happens," Ruud said.

Other lawmakers have been frustrated by another result of the rapid pace: hundreds of bills have been introduced but only a select few get voted on.

"We have fewer days but yet we have the same number of issues," said Rep. Mary Ellen Otremba, DFL-Long Prairie. The busy session means lawmakers don't have as much time to meet with constituents who visit the Capitol, she added.

Legislative leaders say they have heard no complaints about running a too-fast process.


Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson, DFL-Willmar, said he would not mind if someone complains that things are moving too fast. "I take that as a compliment."

"We have really pushed these people," Johnson said. "We forgot spring training this year; we went directly to the regular season."

Legislators like an orderly progression, he said, but in a three-month session there is not time for that.

Coming in March 1 instead of a month earlier was good for lawmakers, House Speaker Steve Sviggum, R-Kenyon, said.

"It allowed them to catch up on personal parts of their lives," he said.

Without a budget, which was passed last year, there was less to do this year, Sviggum added, so less time is needed.

When lawmakers return to the Capitol this week, many suspect the pace of activity won't let up for the remaining weeks leading up to May 22, the last day the Legislature can meet in regular session.

There will be less work in committees but more time spent debating bills on the floor of the House and Senate. As bills are passed, conference committees will be busy working out disagreements between the House and Senate.


While some legislators say there are problems with trying to cram many issues in just a few months, Sen. Jim Vickerman, DFL-Tracy, said the public wants a brief, productive session.

"I think people want us to get done, get along and get out of here," Vickerman said.

Forum Communications Capitol reporter Don Davis contributed to this story.

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One year ago, when the regular legislative session was two months longer, a group of lawmakers representing rural Minnesota met several times to discuss issues from a rural perspective.

Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, said the group has only met once this year. That means there is less time to establish bipartisan support for issues that benefit Greater Minnesota, he said.

Marquart said the short session has resulted in less deliberation over proposals put before lawmakers.

"It's a quick pace and I like a quick pace, but I do think some of the bills may not be getting the look at them like they should," he said. "This would not be a process you'd want to use when you're doing your budget."


The pace of this session is faster than Rep. Morrie Lanning, R-Moorhead, has experienced during his other three years in the House.

In past years, he said, sessions began with a lot of sitting around and waiting. This year it was so hectic that there was too little time to spend on critical bills, he added.

"There has to be a happy medium," said Lanning, who in more than 20 years as Moorhead mayor had more say in setting the pace than he does in the Legislature.

On major bills such as eminent domain, Lanning said he has been able to devote the time needed.

"It's a general feeling things have been rushed," he said.

"We're really scrambling," Rep. Doug Magnus, R-Slayton, said.

But so far issues are getting enough time, he added.

Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, said the pace has been "hectic" but it hasn't resulted in bad legislation.


"I think that bills are getting due consideration," Urdahl said. "It's just that I don't know we'll get them all done."

Urdahl predicated that things will slow down when the Legislature begins the second half of the session.

The first six weeks of the session breezed by, Rep. Aaron Peterson said. The Madison DFLer predicted that lawmakers will "settle in" for lengthy floor debates upon their return to the Capitol.

"That also means there's time to get into politics," Peterson cautioned.

If the Legislature limits its priorities only to issues that can be agreed upon, Skoe said there will be less opportunity for mistakes or legislation that didn't get a thorough review.

(Scott Wente covers the Legislature for Forum Communications Co.)

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