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Winona to host 'mini-session' of lawmakers in October

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State representatives gather on the floor of the Minnesota House.
State representatives gather on the floor of the Minnesota House in the State Capitol in St. Paul in May 2019 for a special session. The House will convene its first “mini-session” in decades this fall with a series of hearings in Winona and surrounding communities.
Steve Karnowski | AP Photo file

Minnesota lawmakers are preparing to take their show on the road with an October mini-session in the Winona area.

A formal announcement for the mini-session of the state House was made Wednesday, although legislators were apprised of it last week.

It’s been decades since the last mini-session where several committees held hearings away from the State Capitol at the same time.

“By clustering a bunch of hearings together, we can do a couple of things. We can make it more convenient for members,” said House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park. “We can also give more advance planning and more advance notice for the public so that they can participate more fully.”

Hortman said it’s a way for state leaders to gather input on pressing matters. She said it’s been a priority “for us to be out in Minnesota asking Minnesotans what they perceive to be the state’s public policy problems and public policy solutions rather than making them feel like they have to come to St. Paul to weigh in.”

Hortman said the agenda for the Oct. 2-4 mini-session is still being shaped. But prescription drug affordability, issues in agriculture and vocational education programs are among possible topics for discussion.

House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Zimmerman, urged Hortman in a letter to use the convening to delve deeper into recent troubles at the Department of Human Services. Several top agency managers have left or been forced out, with others raising questions about spending or program oversight.

Gov. Tim Walz recently named Pam Wheelock as the department’s interim leader after Commissioner Tony Lourey resigned.

“To date, Minnesotans have received no clear explanation for the leadership shake-up at our state’s largest agency,” Daudt wrote on Tuesday, noting that because the department is “responsible for billions of dollars in state and federal spending, these decisions are not abstract — they impact the lives of more than a million Minnesotans.”

A pair of Minnesota Senate committees have scheduled a joint hearing for mid-August on management issues at the Human Services Department.

Hortman said she’s open to talking more about changes at the Human Services Department, including proposals to reorganize the agency to make its mission and role more manageable. She said some discussions between her and Walz have already occurred.

“It’s been a conversational topic for a long time,” she said. “It’s a very big agency with a very big bill that has always ended up being the last bill completed and that has tied the drafting apparatus in knots.”

Not all of the mini-session hearings will be in the same place or even the same town, but all will be in the vicinity of the southeastern Minnesota river city.

Because lawmakers aren’t due back to work until February, there won’t be votes and attendance is optional.

Costs will be covered by the House budget and include member lodging and expense allowances.