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Rep. Mike Nelson
Rep. Mike Nelson, DFL-Brooklyn Park, is seen wrapping up debate on April 16 just before the House passed his version of the State Government omnibus. (Image courtesy of House Public Information Services)

In the Hopper: State Government omnibus bill edition

We spend a lot of time dwelling on the output of the Senate Judiciary committee and its two House counterparts—Public Safety and Judiciary. Senate Civil Law, too, whenever they’re in business.

But lots of other committees do work that’s of interest to lawyers. Take the two State Government committees—the conjunction-plagued State Government Finance and Policy and Elections Committee in the Senate, and the House’s State Government Finance and Elections Committee.

They’ve each passed omnibus finance bills that have lawyerly provisions. House File 1952 (chief author, Rep. Mike Nelson, DFL-Brooklyn Park), the State Government omnibus, cleared the House floor by a 68-62 vote on April 16. Its counterpart, Senate File 1831 (Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake) passed the Senate by a 38-28 vote on April 26.

Now they head into conference committee to smooth out their considerable differences.

While the bills take care of lots of things that fall outside our coverage zone, now and again they hit the sweet spot. So we thought we’d dig into them for a bit compare and contrast, arranged by subject.

Attorney general

As a constitutional office, the AG gets its funding through the two State Government committees. HF 1952 nets Keith Ellison’s office $58.784 million over the 2022-23 biennium. That’s an increase of $11.758 million over base budget, though it’s $500,000 less than the governor asked for.

SF 1831, by contrast, offers the AG’s office $47.226 million for the biennium—just $200,000 over base budget. “The approach that I took on preparing this bill was to make sure I’m doing what I could to fund government operations for efficiency and to recognize savings,” Kiffmeyer said.

Certainly that is the case with the AG’s office. The only additional money that office receives in the Kiffmeyer bill is $200,000 for security improvements. That’s well under the $1.029 million for FY2022 requested for that office’s security by Gov. Tim Walz. The House fully funded his request.

Otherwise, House appropriations to the AG’s office for wage theft enforcement ($878,000), antitrust resources ($1.156 million), enhanced criminal enforcement and initiatives ($3.142 million) and e-discovery, case management and other tech improvements ($4.953 million) all go unfunded in the Senate bill. So does a $600,000 allotment for pay raises.

Mary Kiffmeyer

Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, is the Senate State Government omnibus bill’s author. (Image courtesy of Senate Media Services)

Veterans restorative justice

Though it’s a court-managed sentencing diversion program, the long-delayed Veterans Restorative Justice Act never made it into the Senate Public Safety bill this year. But it did find a slot in Kiffmeyer’s State Government bill, as well as Nelson’s House counterpart. Both finance bills fold in their chambers’ veterans affairs omnibus packages.

The veterans’ diversion program would allow judges to help veterans who come home from combat theaters with substance abuse and mental health problems that get them in trouble with the law. If accepted into the program, the vet must plead guilty to any crime committed. Then, if they complete a rigorous program that includes treatment and strict accountability overseen by a judge, the conviction can be vacated.

The program is not available to offenders who commit murder, kidnapping, sex crimes or other felonies that require registration under Minn. Stat. § 243.166.

Elections. The two chambers’ election reform provisions are studies in contrast.

The House version includes automatic registration for people who renew their driver’s licenses or apply for state benefits. It restores voting rights for felons out on probation or parole. It provides civil and criminal remedies for voter intimidation, interference or deception. And it forces dark money contributors to disclose on independent expenditure forms the names of their top three contributors.

“What this does,” said Rep. Emma Greenman, DFL-Minneapolis, the House election package’s original author, “is it strengthens voters’ hands. It strengthens and protects election judges from the rising threat of fear and violence. And it ensures that Minnesotans and not corporations or special interests are the voices of our democracy.”

The Senate’s omnibus charts a different path.

The Kiffmeyer bill introduces provisional ballots, a system that allows voters whose eligibility is questioned to cast votes provisionally—meaning they would get counted later after affected voters verify their eligibility.

Democrats have derided the system as a “maybe pile”—as in, maybe they’ll get counted, maybe not. Unlike all but 47 states, Minnesota has avoided instituting provisional ballots because it has a same-day voter registration system.

Under the GOP Senate bill, same-day voter registration would remain ostensibly in place. But because it delays verification for any voter who registers 20 days or less before Election Day until after the election, DFLers contend the Republican plan actually relegate same-day registrations to a different kind of “maybe pile,” nearly analogous to provisional ballots.

The Senate’s election package also requires county auditors to publish lists of voters whose eligibility is marked as challenged in the statewide voter registration system. “For each voter,” the bill says, “the list must include the history of each change in status and the date that the change to that status was made.”

“You can have a red ‘C’ that you would be wearing that you were once challenged,” said Sen. Jim Carlson, DFL-Eagan, speaking figuratively in opposition to the idea. “And the public can examine that record.”

Finally, the Kiffmeyer bill would ban any city, county, township district or school district from implementing ranked-choice voting, which has long been touted as a way for third party candidates to break through and to ensure that winners always receive majority votes. Localities that already have the system in place would have to get rid of them if the Senate language passed into law.

Sen. Jim Carlson

Sen. Jim Carlson, DFL-Eagan, spoke against a Republican provisional balloting proposal that would require county auditors to publish lists of voters whose eligibility is marked as challenged in the statewide voter registration system. “You can have a red ‘C’ that you would be wearing that you were once challenged,” said Carlson, speaking figuratively in opposition to the idea. (Image courtesy of Senate Media Services)

Other points

One lawyerly new policy is shared in both bills. It gives the Office of Administrative Hearings new authority, allowing administrative law judges to issue final, binding rulings rather than mere advisory opinions

Another, House-only provision got amended into HF 1952 on the House floor, introduced by Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley.

It does two things. First, it creates a mass demonstration review commission. Its job would be to dig into facts and time lines surrounding Minnesota’s 2020-21 civil disturbances, with an eye toward evaluating law enforcement response. Its members would be chosen by Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie Gildea.

The other Winkler provision is totally unrelated to the first and has reverberations from a landmark old court case. It forever bans governors from zeroing out the Legislature’s budgetary appropriations thought line-item vetoes. It does that by taking away the governor’s authority to approve the Legislature’s budget in the first place.

The move was precipitated by Gov. Mark Dayton’s line-item veto of 2017, which left the Legislature bereft of its 2018-19 biennial appropriation. That precipitated a lawsuit pitting the governor against the Legislature, which ended with the Supreme Court punting on several key legal questions. But, importantly, the court therein ruled that, henceforth, courts no longer would be available to appropriate money to government agencies to avoid total government shutdowns during budget impasses.

Those provisions are nowhere to be found in the Senate omnibus. In terms of Senate-only provisions, one stands out.

It would—surprise!—give the Senate the unilateral power to end the governor’s peacetime emergency authority, at least as the Legislature is now configured.

It does that by turning current statute on its head. Rather than requiring a majority vote of both chambers to end to a peacetime emergency after 30 days, the Senate bill would require both chambers to proactively vote to extend a peacetime emergency after 30 days.

That way, lacking a majority vote of both houses, the emergency would automatically end, rather than being automatically extended.

“The legislative body would have greater impact, as the constitution requires, with regard to the governing of Minnesota,” Kiffmeyer said of that provision during Senate floor debate.

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