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March Legislative Madness: Minnesota ranked in top 10

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By Tom Steward | Watchdog Minnesota

BUSY FOLKS: Minnesota lawmakers are offering a ton of bills for consideration this session.

BUSY FOLKS: Minnesota lawmakers are offering a ton of bills for consideration this session.

ST. PAUL — Minnesota ranks near the top  nationally in the number of bills introduced by elected officials so far this legislative season.

The number of bills introduced in statehouses across the nation broke through the 100,000 barrier just this week. Roughly 2,800 would-be laws have been filed in St. Paul, according to the website BillTrack50, placing the state in 10th place.

Front runner New York boasts more than 10,000 bills under consideration, followed by Texas, New Jersey, Illinois and Massachusetts in the Top 5.

But state lawmakers’ version of March Madness produces its own upsets and lead changes with Tennessee, Hawaii, Mississippi, Virginia and Minnesota packed close together  to round out the Top 10.  Five of those states have Democrat-controlled legislatures, three states have Republican-controlled legislatures and two states have split-controlled legislatures.

The volume of new laws under consideration in Minnesota has increased dramatically with the Democrat-Farmer-Labor Party in control of the House, Senate and governorship for the first time since 1990. A Watchdog Minnesota comparison between the 2011 legislative session under GOP control and the 2013 legislative session under DFL control shows that nearly 1,000 more bills have been introduced.

Through Monday, 430 more bills — 41 percent — had been filed in the Minnesota House and 551 more bills — 74 percent — had been entered in the state Senate than at this point in 2011.

While the drastic uptick in legislative activity may reflect  pent-up demand among core Democratic constituencies, it also reflects a difference in governing philosophy, political analyst David Schultz of Hamline University in St. Paul told Watchdog.org.

“It might reflect political philosophy with the Republicans clearly expressing less of an interest in wanting the government to take action across a whole range of economic issues especially, and just in general not being as interested in government intervention as many Democrats are,” Schultz said.

As a key deadline for introducing bills approaches on Thursday, Schultz says the comparative avalanche of new bills may be a sign the DFL is less coordinated and strategic than their predecessors.

“The Democrats could very well be less organized in their approach to introducing legislation compared to the Republicans,” Schultz said. “My suspicion is you might have had more Republicans jointly sponsoring legislation (in 2011), reflecting a tighter coalition or a tighter political strategy in terms of how they wanted to move their agenda.”

The Top 10 bill authors in both the Minnesota House and Senate are all DFL party members. Deputy Minority Leader Sen. Jeff Hayden’s name shows up most often with 55 bills to his credit, while Rep. Joe Mullery leads the pack in the House with 53 bills.  Democrats also dominate the list of co-authors of legislation in each chamber, though Republican Rep. Jim Abler has co-sponsored more bills than any of his peers in either party with a running count of 159.

The glut of bills raises the question of whether Minnesota and other states should consider capping the number of bills a lawmaker can introduce each year.  Twenty-two chambers in 14 states place restrictions on bill introductions, which Schultz said could streamline the process and cut down on legislator grandstanding.

“This is a part-time legislature with a finite amount of time to get things done,” Schultz said. “It would be better to say let’s limit the number of bills that can be introduced under normal circumstances, forcing the Legislature to put more focus on those, as opposed to a lot of others.”

Of course, there could be one hangup for a bill that would cap the number of bills each session:  Finding an author, much less co-sponsors.  Maybe that’s why the issue has not come up in all the years Schultz has monitored the Minnesota legislature.

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Tom Steward covers government waste, spending and policy issues in his home state of Minnesota. Also a documentary filmmaker and in-depth broadcast journalist, Tom's work has appeared on NPR, Animal Planet, WCCO-TV, WGBH-TV, PBS, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, KSTP-TV, CBC, among other outlets. Highlights include the fall of the Berlin Wall, a Peabody Award, the first footage in the wild of the endangered Sumatran tiger and rhino and countless individuals who shared their stories, big and small. Steward served as a communications strategist in the U.S. Senate before returning to reporting on issues and people often overlooked by other media.