comScore

How a bill becomes a flaw

itemprop

A couple months ago, a lobbyist came up to Rep. Gene Pelowski (DFL-Winona) and asked him to author a bill. Pelowski was confused.

He'd already introduced the same bill the year before, and it's still alive.

The lobbyist insisted. That's when it hit him: The lobbyist doesn't care.

"If I put the bill in again," Pelowski says, "the lobbyist can report to his client, 'I've got the bill in for 2016 too.' And the client says, 'Excellent work.'"

Over the last two years, members of the Minnesota House have produced 4,000 bills — and counting. They're continuing to file legislation now, in the final days of session, long after deadlines. These will never be heard in committee. Or even noticed.

Pelowski has introduced just four bills in the last two years, and all of them matter to him. He doesn't know what to make of colleagues like Rep. Nick Zerwas (R-Elk River) and his 103 bills, or Rep. Joe Mullery (DFL-Minneapolis), who authored 91.

itemprop

Zerwas has caught some good-natured shit for it. He can explain.

"The number is a little deceiving," he says, "because I might have five or six bills just dealing with, for example, Medicaid dental reimbursement rates. And those five or six bills are just different ways to attack that problem."

He's also learned how to employ what's called a "sledgehammer" bill to dislodge two sides — say, hospitals and insurance companies — who refuse to compromise. The sledgehammer's something "they both hate." Introduce one of those, and watch their lobbyists scurry back to the negotiating table right quick.

But when Pelowski surveys the stacks, he sees calculation.

"I've seen some legislators put bills in on both sides of the same issue. That way they can go to one group and say, 'I've got a bill in on that,' then talk to a group on the other side and say, 'I've got a bill on that.'"

Some legislators will present bills sight unseen. I once watched a lobbyist walk into a legislator's office and ask, "You've got that bill, right?"

The legislator's eyes widened. "I thought you were writing it," he said.

The lobbyist frowned. "No, yeah, I'll write it. I meant are you going to carry it?"

"Oh, of course," came the answer.

Bernie Hesse, a lobbyist for the United Food and Commercial Workers union, says lobbyists know which lawmakers want someone else to do all the work for them. He sometimes catches bills so clearly copied and pasted from other states that they use language that doesn't exist in Minnesota law. Knowing the members, maybe this isn't always a bad thing.

"Some of them have a legal mind... and are good at it," Hesse says. "Others? Maybe the printed word is not their gift."

Then there are those who clearly don't understand what they're proposing. Former Rep. Ryan Winkler (DFL-Golden Valley) routinely watched lawmakers defer to the lobbyist in the chair next to them to explain the details.

"If you're just going to turn it over to a lobbyist," Winkler says, "that shows a lack of seriousness about the work."

The lobbyists are happy to help. A few years ago, Rep. Kim Norton (DFL-Rochester) briefly allowed a Mayo Clinic lobbyist to work with staff during the passage of a colossal — $6 billion from Mayo, $585 million from the public — Destination Medical Center bill.

Thing is, Norton's one of the hardest-working legislators out there, and the success or failure of her ideas weighs on her heavily. Other legislators just hand the lobbyist the keys to the office and take the day off.

"I do think legislators sometimes get a bill from, let's say, a 'friendly' organization, or a 'friendly' supporter... and they say, 'We want this passed.'"

When Norton says "friendly," picture a pen signing a check.

Gene Pelowski's on an island with his concerns about too many bills. Norton says she's passed "20 or more" in a single year, and Zerwas got "about 30" into law last year.

The process is the problem. Last year, legislators wrote about 2,400 bills, a near-record high. They passed all of 77 laws, by far the fewest ever, meaning those thousands of ideas were diced, squeezed, and shoved into a few dozen book-length bills.

It all played out in the final days of session: lobbyists scrambling to get one more thing stapled on or knifed out, with sleep-deprived lawmakers trying to uncloak the contents moments before voting. It was ugly.

Expect to see the same this weekend. The Legislature adjourns on Monday. Like last year, like every year, they've saved everything that matters until the very end. Billions of dollars in tax cuts, transportation spending, and public works projects hang in the balance, and our representatives have literally thousands of great ideas to choose from.

And the lobbyists will be standing by, helping them to choose the right ones. 

More from Mike Mullen: