One Minnesota law has been causing awkward moments in state government since it was enacted in 2009.
And that means it’s working perfectly, according to its Senate sponsor, Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove.
Central to the matter up for debate was how the Department of Public Safety could change its policies and practices on state identification cards to help Minnesota comply with the requirements of the federal REAL ID Act.
Among the 40 or so people at the long, curved rostrum were state senators and representatives, staffers from each body, citizens, a representative from the governor’s office — and no one from the Department of Public Safety.
It would have been a violation of Limmer’s 2009 law for a DPS staffer to participate in the discussion. The result was a fair amount of hemming, humming and guesswork about many pieces of information a DPS staffer might have had ready at hand, including policy alternatives and the estimated costs of proposed new systems and the time required for rolling them out.
Session Law 92 (HF 988) has created more than its share of consternation for a law that’s only 35 words in length:
“The commissioner of public safety is prohibited from taking any action to implement or to plan for the implementation by this state of those sections of Public Law 109-13 known as the REAL ID Act.”
The sponsor of the legislation in the House was Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, who had seen earlier versions vetoed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty. This version passed overwhelmingly in both houses, receiving only one vote against, Limmer recalled, and Pawlenty relented. (Both Mariani and Limmer are members of the REAL ID compliance task force.)
It’s a rare type of law, banning a state agency from complying with or even discussing a federal law. But tying the state’s hands was the whole point, according to Limmer.
“The bill worked,” he said. “I’ve never written a bill like that before or after, but in 2009 we really did not know what REAL ID was all about. It was quite alarming to think the federal government is going to tell a state how to print licenses.”
Limmer said the point of his law was to make sure members of the House and Senate in future sessions had to grapple with the nitty-gritty of the federal law. They would have to at least repeal the law Mariani and Limmer wrote first.
“It forces us now to really study what we need to comply with,” Limmer said. “Consideration of repeal would have to go back to the Legislature.”
That approach is similar to legislation proposed by Rep. Jim Newberger, R-Becker, in the House Job Growth and Energy Affordability Committee. Newberger’s bill made its way into the jobs and energy omnibus bill that Gov. Mark Dayton signed into law after the special session last June. It required the state’s plan to comply with new Environmental Protection Agency standards to come back to the House and Senate for approval before being sent off to Washington, D.C.
Legislative staffers questioned for this article had difficulty recalling other laws that put a similar restriction on the activity or communication a state agency engages in regarding compliance with a federal law, or anything else.
A somewhat parallel situation transpired when Minnesota dragged its feet on complying with the national .08 blood alcohol content standard, becoming one of the last states to implement it, with a similar sentiment that the federal government should stop telling us what to do.
And a piece of 2013 legislation that became law prohibits the “Minnesota Insurance Marketplace” (better known as MNsure) from collecting information that indicates whether an individual owns a gun or has a firearm in the individual’s home.
But in Limmer’s opinion the impulse to gag state agencies or tie their hands shouldn’t be a common approach in lawmaking.
“No, there should not be more laws written that way,” he said. “We’d fall into a quagmire if every bill we considered could not have input from our administrators. We need to work in partnership with them once the governor signs a bill into law.”
His advice: “Reserve this method of reconsideration, use this method sparingly and on important issues that affect not only privacy and safety of our citizens, to make sure that those elected to government office are the ones relied on to repair or improve on a bill.”
Laws banning action or requiring revisiting the Legislature are “reflective of concern in present-day lawmaking,” Limmer said: an increasing number of executive branch decisions. “We in the legislative branch begin to realize that we are losing our role, elected to represent our districts … now we’re supposed to be following the edict of our executive.”
Limmer is at peace with the Legislature repealing the ban he and Mariani got passed in 2009 — if it’s done in stages. Repeal the planning ban first, he said, and the implementation part second, probably in a repealer section of a new bill to comply with REAL ID.