New leadership at the Capitol and scores of freshmen scrambled the playing field
At the close of a news conference in July called by Republican legislative leaders to discuss the $11 billion health and human services bill, former DFL House Speaker Bob Vanasek offered some pointed criticism to Republicans David Hann and Jim Abeler from the back of the room. Vanasek was upset about the process used to create the final budget, in which bills were drafted in a hurry in a locked-down Capitol just before the special session.
“Absolutely unprecedented,” Vanasek said to the two legislators in an unusual move, adding that he hopes it “never, ever happens again.”
While he was voicing his concerns as a citizen, the process was particularly challenging for Vanasek’s day job as a Capitol lobbyist. After the budget bills were released and passed within hours, one of Vanasek’s clients, a senior home care provider, noticed a provision in the HHS budget bill that could potentially cut their revenues by 25 percent. Other lobbyists also found new — or inexplicably absent — budget provisions in the fallout from the whirlwind conclusion of the six-month budget fight.
The complaint is just one of many from the lobbyist ranks after a particularly volatile legislative session that had the first modern Republican-controlled Legislature, the first DFL administration in decades, a large freshman class, new committee structures and what some say was the longest government shutdown in the nation’s history. GOP and DFL lobbyists alike were frustrated with the huge class of new players, many of whom had little government background, paid scant attention to caucus leaders and accomplished little on major Republican priorities such as tort reform.
“Gosh, it was one of those sessions that comes around every once in a while when things all seem to go wrong,” Racino Now lobbyist and former Senate Minority Leader Dick Day said. “It kind of got out of control.”
A steep learning curve
For lobbyist Tony Kwilas, the first day of the 2011 session was a lot like the first day of school.
“There were all of these new members and staffers and committee chairs,” he said. A whopping 60 new legislators entered the Capitol at the start of the 2011 session, an impressive figure and the fourth largest freshman class in the last four decades, exceeded in recent years only by the 64 new members elected in 2002. Fifty-four of the new freshmen joined the two Republican caucuses, tipping the GOP into the majority in both chambers and creating the first modern GOP-led Legislature in Minnesota. “For an old-time lobbyist like me,” Kwilas said, “it was kind of like a fresh start.”
But for many veteran lobbyists, the fresh faces also meant a steep, often frustrating learning curve. Few new legislators understood government mechanics such as funding formulas, the process of drafting a bill or even floor etiquette.
“Quite frankly, you need a bit more institutional understanding and memory than what we were able to have with so many freshmen this time,” said former Independent Republican legislator-turned-lobbyist Bill Schreiber. “Government’s complicated, and it requires good students. You don’t pick that up overnight. That is not to discredit this class of freshmen, but there is only so much that you can absorb in a four-month period of time. You don’t get a college degree by going one semester.”
In the view of one longtime lobbyist, who wished to remain anonymous, a lot of the new members “literally did fall off the turnip truck” and had a complete lack of “experience in doing anything in the public sector.” Other lobbyists felt the Tea Party insurgency brought to power in Minnesota a freshman class with a “bitter pill” attitude toward government.
“The new members that came in were really bound and determined and had their eyes set on certain issues, and they were going to hang in there,” Day said. “In years past, it seemed like you had to be there for a few years before you thought you knew everything, but the new group that came in was really headstrong on how to do things and what they needed to do.”
For veteran GOP lobbyist Todd Hill, it was less challenging to get to know the new Republican majorities than it was to make ties in an almost all-new DFL administration. For Hill, learning whose door to knock on in Dayton’s office is “still an ongoing process.”
Along with the new class of freshmen came new legislative aides and staffers. For lobbyist Bob Johnson, scheduling legislator appointments was one of the most frustrating aspects of the session. “They didn’t have any sense of how to do that, and they just booked them up solid as people asked,” Johnson said. “I found it was almost impossible to get on the schedule.
Legislators were increasingly inaccessible. When you get to those critical junctures late in the session, you have to have time on your schedule to see certain people.”
Lobbyists weigh in on new leadership
Some old faces took on leadership roles this legislative session, and many of them, lobbyists say, had a hard time adjusting to their newfound power.
The problem was especially acute in the Senate, where Republicans held gavels and Democrats sat in the minority for the first time. In a memorable moment last session, Hann, the new Health and Human Services chairman, stayed at the head of the committee table as he presented one of his own bills. Former HHS Chairwoman Linda Berglin promptly scolded Hann, and he moved to the testifying table where bills are traditionally presented. The same went for DFLers in the Senate, according to one DFL lobbyist, who said “they didn’t seem to know how to act or what to do.”
One GOP lobbyist noted that in the GOP House caucus, House Speaker Kurt Zellers lacked the authority and discipline of the chamber’s former leaders. Many believed Zellers was worried that the new class would strip him of his speakership if he pulled the reins too tight. “I think he was kind of afraid of them,” the lobbyist said, “and for that reason they held a lot of power over what was taken up and what wasn’t.”
What wasn’t taken up? Well, a lot of things.
This session had considerably fewer bills introduced than in 2009, the last comparable (budgeting) year. In the House, 2,407 bills were introduced in 2009, about 33 percent more than the 1,761 introduced this year. The Senate numbers are similar: 2,166 bills introduced in 2009, and 1,477 introduced this year. The relative shortage of policy bills was perhaps to be expected in a budget year that brought a historic deficit and new majorities, but that did not change the fact that many GOP allies had high expectations for the session. Issues pursued by the business community that fell short of passage include tort reform, early childhood education and some tax reforms.
“Except for the gay marriage thing, there wasn’t much that really happened,” one veteran lobbyist said. “There were fewer bills introduced, fewer hearings, and they didn’t try to overturn much. A lot of people were frustrated, even Republican types. They thought, ‘Oh, here we go. We are going to get a lot of stuff done.’ They were surprised that there weren’t that many big initiatives.”
As Republicans rolled out their committee chair rosters at a news conference last fall, they used a colorful chart to demonstrate that their new, slimmed-down list made much more sense than the DFL-led Legislature’s confusing system.
They were right. Most lobbyists like the ease and simplicity of the new committee structure. “With fewer committees, you have fewer roadblocks to getting through the process,” said former Minnesota Management and Budget (MMB) Commissioner Tom Hanson, a lobbyist. “The less stops the better if you’re a lobbyist trying to pass something.”
But Republicans also announced another change: They were going to flip the budget and policy deadline so they could get finance bills done quickly during a contentious budgeting year. Policy would come later.
For Hanson, that complicated the process: “You had to simultaneously follow the policy bills and the budget bills.” One common complaint in the confusion that ensued was that policy initiatives lobbyists wanted to see pass got lost amid the budget stalemate. Another was that the budget bills included so much policy anyway that lobbyists were unsure when, or how, they were supposed to bring their ideas to fruition.
Former DFL Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe, now a lobbyist, said the budget-first idea was nice in theory and seemed to work well for the first half of the session. But budget bills didn’t move as quickly as people expected in the weeks after the spring break, and policy issues were swept away in the undertow. “I thought they would move the bills relatively soon and set May aside to negotiate,” he said. “They waited, and the rest is history.”
A ‘terrible experience’
Vanasek wasn’t the only lobbyist upset about the closed budget negotiating process.
For Schreiber, the shutdown was a “terrible experience. I hope everyone learned from it.”
Some bills were posted online just hours — or minutes — before they passed. By morning they were signed into law by the governor. Veteran lobbyists were left scrambling to understand the implications.
Lobbyists did not expect to sit at the table with legislators, Schreiber said. “But on the other hand,” he continued, “we are very accustomed to talking with them in the hall or in their office about points that were perhaps raised during their discussion where we may have some additional information. This time we didn’t have that opportunity.”