Analysis: Here’s how a bill really becomes law

Remember the textbook you read in school that laid out a few neat steps about how a bill becomes law? That might not tell the whole story.

The human factor seldom is discussed in texts. Also often lacking are discussions about lobbyists and partisan politics. But most mysterious and missing may be party caucus meetings, where many of the real decisions are made.

First, however, here are some of those technical steps to how a bill becomes law:

• Legislators put an idea for a new law into writing.

• The bill is referred to a committee that deals with its subject.

• One or more committees consider the proposal and might pass it on to the full House or Senate.

• The House or Senate debates the bill, eventually either defeating it or passing it and sending it on to the other chamber.

• If the second chamber passes the bill as is, it moves on to the governor for his signature.

• If the two chambers pass different versions, a conference committee made up of House and Senate members tries to work out a compromise.

• Once both chambers pass the same form of a bill, the governor’s signature is needed for it to become law. He also can veto it, and the House and Senate could override a veto if there are enough votes.

But with thousands of bills introduced every session, not everything can be debated (more than 3,000 bills awaited lawmakers when they returned to session this year). So leaders elected by each of the four caucuses – House Republicans, House Democrats, Senate Republicans and Senate Democrats – cull the bills that committees hear, with average legislators left to lobby their colleagues to consider their bills.

Actually, many bills lawmakers introduce are not meant to reach a vote. Instead, they are introduced to keep a lawmakers’ constituents happy.

Decisions about what bills actually get committee hearings are based on rationales ranging from what has a chance to pass to what bills the majority party in a chamber supports. Bills brought up by members of the other party are less likely to be debated.

Before and after private caucus meetings, lobbyists talk to legislators about bills they are paid to advocate – or oppose. Many legislators find these meetings helpful because lawmakers themselves do not have time to research every bill.

Private caucus meetings of majority parties are where most major decisions are made. Caucus members discuss bills before they reach the full chamber. When majority caucus members mostly agree on an issue, there is little the other side can do to derail a proposal.

This year, Republicans control both the House and Senate, so they can pass many bills without working with legislative Democrats. However, they need to work with Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton to get a bill signed.

Legislators hope for short session

Many in the Minnesota Legislature think the annual session that begins at noon today could be the shortest since 1998.

Plenty of others hope so.

For instance, Moorhead Mayor Mark Voxland said the only thing lawmakers must do this year is pass a public works funding bill. After that, they should go home, he said.

“I applaud the House and the Senate for wanting to do a short session,” the mayor said. “I would like to see them not tinker around.”

With a projected budget surplus, Voxland added, maybe lawmakers can leave local governments alone, so they can “take a deep breath and enjoy a year without having to scramble.”

Legislators like the sound of a short session, in a large part because all 201 seats are up to election this year. Others just think a short session is the right thing to do.

The session begins today amid expectations that the major issues will be passing a public works bill, reforming state government, debating funding a Vikings football stadium and deciding whether to approve several constitutional amendments.

A year ago, lawmakers faced a $5 billion deficit, but that has been erased so they can concentrate on non-budget issues. However, if a Feb. 29 budget report shows new fiscal problems, the budget could again dominate.

Part of the reason a short session is predicted is so those running for re-election can campaign. And with new district maps to be released Feb. 21, that could speed things up even more as lawmakers feel the need to check out their new districts.

House leaders originally planned for an April 30 adjournment, nearly a month before their constitutional deadline. But when Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, suggested leaving St. Paul in early April, House Speaker Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, proclaimed the idea good.

The Legislature has not adjourned in April since 1998.

A five-judge panel’s redistricting decision is prime among the reasons to match the 1998 mark.

“It is amazing what this election season drives,” said Assistant Senate Majority Leader Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria.

“I’m sure people will want to reach out to their new districts and understand their specific concerns,” Sen. John Howe, R-Red Wing, said.

“The last couple months of the session will be going on after people see the new districts and what they’re going to look like,” Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, said. “It will be in the back of people’s minds … if you’re running for re-election.”

For Rep. Bud Nornes, R-Fergus Falls, waiting for new district maps is like going to the doctor: “”It is sort of like waiting … for prognosis from your doctor: Am I sick or am I going to get better?”

Last year’s overtime budget battle, ending only after a 20-day government shutdown, remains on the minds of lawmakers and voters.

“If we don’t get done on time this time, we all are going to be looking for trouble,” Ingebrigtsen said.

Bakk said that lawmakers need to make their name good again after last year, and going home early would help.

Republicans, especially, want a short session.

“A majority of us think that is the way it should work,” Sen. Joe Gimse, R-Willmar, said.

Many legislators said, at least for now, redistricting is out of their hands.

“I don’t think it’s much of a distraction,” Rep. Tim Kelly, R-Red Wing, said. “Now it’s in the court’s hands. I think that allows us to focus on what we’re supposed to be doing at the state level.”

Other legislators said the goal for a short session is simply to finish their work efficiently.

“We’re trying to get along the best that we can, get our work done and get back in our communities and try to help at the community level,” Rep. David Dill, DFL-Crane Lake, said.

If the session is short, less would get done.

“It’s a compressed session,” Nornes said. “Ten weeks is the maximum we are going to be there, according to the plan. That really limits the expectations of huge changes.”