State Senator Melisa Franzen
State Senator Melisa Franzen at her office in St. Paul. (Photo by Sarah Whiting)

As we step closer to voting booths for 2018 state legislators, with every seat in the Minnesota House — among other offices — on the ballot, we talked with two women legislators NOT up for election, who have been involved from the inside. We asked for their views on whether the transparency and productivity in the Legislature have diminished, and what changes might help.

It can be hard to see the “big picture” in the thousands of bills introduced each legislative session, on everything from septic systems to liquor laws to school bus driver qualifications. Most of these bills will never become law; many won’t even get a committee hearing. But each represents an attempt to strengthen the ecosystem of communities that is Minnesota, at least in the eyes of the bill’s author. 

How do you build stronger communities, and a stronger state? For State Sen. Melisa Franzen (DFL-Edina), it entails “connecting all the dots.”

“When people have good health care and transportation, they can be productive,” she says. “And early education — that’s where it all intersects. If kids don’t have a safe place to sleep, and health care, they bring all of that with them.” 

As a small business owner, Franzen says, she knows what it’s like “to want to provide health care for your employees without putting yourself at a competitive disadvantage.” Of the many interwoven issues the Legislature grapples with, Franzen considers health care — encompassing such challenges as opioid addiction, elder abuse, and the lack of a comprehensive mental health system — the “toughest nut to crack.”

“From cost to access, we still have not figured out a sustainable way to provide the one thing everyone needs to have a productive life. We keep politicizing the issue rather than solving it,” says Franzen. This highlights the need for “visionaries, not obstructionists” in elected office, she says. “It’s tough to find candidates that stand for something rather than [just] against the status quo.” 

The ideal candidate, says State Sen. Julie Rosen (R-Vernon Center), “zeroes in on the issues that the average person faces daily, and comes to the table with a reasonable approach — not a radical left or right approach.” She points to child care as a crucial issue.

“We don’t have enough providers, and it’s so expensive. It’s killing families,” says Rosen. “You can’t just sit and poke fingers at [Governor Mark Dayton] because he wanted to unionize providers. Let’s sit down at the table and figure it out.”

Child care is another issue that intersects with many others. Access to affordable care impacts whether people can work, which in turn impacts whether they have health care coverage or can afford housing. But as Franzen points out, the legislative structure doesn’t encourage lawmakers to see, and address, the big picture. Legislators are assigned to certain committees. To an extent, the committees are in competition for resources. 

Legislative majority caucus leaders give each finance committee a budget “target” representing how much money they can spend. Since state government can’t run a deficit, a bigger budget target for, say, the Health and Human Services Committee, may mean a smaller one for the Education Committee. This can lead legislators to focus on “protecting their silos,” says Franzen. “We need to be stewards of those dollars — to put them where it makes the most sense — and it might not be in your committee.” 

However, Franzen is skeptical of the view that government is mainly about how elected officials choose to spend our money. “I think that’s the old view of government,” she says. “It’s a vision of ‘tax and spend’ versus a vision of ‘how do you create opportunity?’ It’s not just about dollars. It’s about policy. Marriage equality created so many opportunities for people — access to health care, protections for their kids.”






Positive Steps

Asked to identify a “win” from the 2018 session, both Franzen and Rosen cite something less overtly glamorous: the omnibus pension bill, which includes fiscal sustainability measures for the state’s four public pension systems. “No question about it,” Rosen says. “It honored our commitment to state workers and also set our state budget on a better path going forward.” 

As Senate Finance Chair, Rosen says she was “adamant” that pension reforms be tackled early in the session. The Senate did pass the bill early, but “the House sat on it to put pressure on the Governor,” she says. “We got it [passed] at five minutes to midnight [on the last day of session]. It was very stressful!”

Franzen says partnering with the faith community has helped on another issue: housing, in which the Legislature has invested significant amounts through the capital bonding bill in recent years.


“It’s not a Democratic or Republican issue. It affects people in every corner of the state,” Franzen says. “Affordable housing is a matter of pride. People want to be able to put a roof over their kids’ heads, and still be able to buy them ice cream.”




Omnibus Bills

If you define getting things done at the Legislature as getting bills passed into law, less is getting done these days than in past years. 

According to data from the Legislative Reference Library, the number of new laws passed each year has been on a dramatic decline since the mid1970s. Over the same timeframe, the average number of pages per law has increased.

This suggests a trend toward massive omnibus budget and policy bills. Lawmakers have long bundled, for example, multiple education funding and policy provisions into a single bill. 

Nowadays, a single bill might include hundreds of provisions across multiple budget categories such as transportation, health and human services, public safety, agriculture, and environment and natural resources. 

This year, the GOP-led House and Senate passed a 990-page omnibus supplemental budget bill near the end of session. The entire bill was vetoed by Governor Dayton, a DFLer, who supported many of the bill’s provisions but stated in his veto letter that it also contained “policies and agency budget cuts that I had said I would not sign.” 

Rosen sees a straightforward explanation for this year’s mega-bill: the session didn’t begin until late February, and was set to adjourn by May 21. “To get all of those separate bills agreed upon, in separate conference committees, would have been impossible,” she says. Beyond that, she adds, linking different issues together is a matter of strategy: “The reality is, you need to get some leverage in order to get people to the table and reach a compromise.” 

That said, had it been up to her, Rosen would have put some of the omnibus bill’s major pieces — notably, combating the opioid crisis — into separate legislation. However, “the House was adamant that they be part of the larger bill,” she says. Rosen authored legislation imposing fees on pharmaceutical companies to fund prevention, treatment, and social services related to opioid addiction. It passed the Senate 60-6, but was among the 2018 session’s many casualties.


Transparency

Besides their sheer bulk, another frequent complaint is that omnibus bills are often assembled in private by the top leaders of the House and Senate majority parties — leaving other lawmakers, and those they represent, in the dark.

Individual legislators, Franzen notes, can’t be involved in every issue to the extent they might like. However, when not only rank-and-file lawmakers but also the ranking minority party members of the relevant committees are shut out of the process, “that’s when the system breaks down,” she says. “It’s partisan politics at its worst.”

When Franzen first came to the Senate in 2013, she recalls committees meeting for hours to hear public testimony, ask questions, and vote on bills. But in 2018, an omnibus tax and education bill was unveiled in the middle of the night near the end of session. 

“Literally a handful of people were able to come and weigh in on it, and they were mostly paid lobbyists,” she says. The only ones who could provide input before it was voted on were “only those who were lucky enough to be near the Capitol when this big bill came out that will affect literally every Minnesotan,” says Franzen. This style of governing, she adds, illustrates “why we need a transition.”

In response, some have suggested imposing a rule requiring that omnibus bills be on legislators’ desks — and available to the public online — a week before the end of session. Rosen is skeptical. “Whenever you set a deadline like that,” she says with a laugh, “we’re going to blow right through it.” In addition, it isn’t clear what the consequences would (or should) be if the deadline isn’t met.

Instead, Rosen would like to see committee chairs and ranking minority members work with the recently created nonpartisan Legislative Budget Office on some of the big issues during the interim between sessions. Several weighty issues loom for lawmakers in 2019, notes Rosen, including what to do about the two-percent medical provider tax, which is due to sunset on December 31, 2019. “If it does [expire], we have a huge hole in our budget,” she says. “It’s hard to get something like that ironed out in a short timeframe. You need to make sure everyone is at the table and has had their voices heard.”

All 134 members of the Minnesota House — and one Minnesota Senate seat, in a special election — will be elected in November 2018. It remains to be seen how many incumbents will return, and how the newcomers might change the dynamic.

Franzen sees signs that a transition is underway. “Some of the old guard is moving on or being voted out,” she says. “A new talent pool is coming in that sees the world differently and actually complements those with the institutional knowledge.” 

About the qualifications for an effective leader, Rosen says: “You don’t necessarily need to have served as a mayor, council member, or school board member. You need to be a good listener. You need to develop relationships. You need to be sincere about your approach.”

The next set of legislators will have work to do. “It’s been said that all the easy issues have been addressed. Now we just have the hard ones,” says Franzen. “So let’s tackle the hard ones.”