Meaningless legislation? Not to top lawmakers

An overhead view of legislators at the Minnesota House
From legal marijuana to an ID requirement for voters, the Minnesota House and Senate have advanced several proposals this session that appear to have no chance of becoming law. Still, leaders say there are good reasons to debate them.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Republicans in the Minnesota Senate and Democrats in the House have spent 10 weeks advancing several bills that appear to have little chance of becoming law.

From legal marijuana to a photo ID requirement to vote, the bills draw strong support from the party in charge of the House or Senate, but little support from the other party. Because control of the Legislature is divided, with a Democratic majority in the House and Republicans in charge of the Senate, the bills are more likely to stall out than to reach the governor’s desk.

And the work on such items will soon give way to compromise, as the need to pass a two-year state budget overtakes policy bills that have drawn only enough support to pass one house. 

Although some items seem doomed, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said there are good reasons to pass bills even when the other chamber is opposed. Such proposals can make important statements, Gazelka said, and they can potentially come into play at the end of session.

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“Both sides will at times move a particular bill that the other side might be passionately opposed to,” Gazelka said. “There are times when you end up getting those in the very end as a compromise.” 

Senate Republicans have been focused on undoing the pandemic-related emergency orders of DFL Gov. Tim Walz, especially those that closed businesses and schools.

They also want to trim state agency spending and require a photo ID to vote. 

Minnesotans rejected a photo ID constitutional amendment in 2012, and Democrats oppose it. But Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, the bill’s author, is not letting that get in the way.

“There is in my estimation no reason whatsoever why any representative or any senator should hesitate to come forward with an initiative that they feel is important and should be discussed for the benefit of the people of the state of Minnesota,” Newman said.

The priorities House Democrats announced earlier this year included worker protections, and more support for schools, child care providers and housing. They're also continuing their push to legalize marijuana, even though Senate Republicans are opposed and are unlikely to hold any hearings.

Still, House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, sees his marijuana bill as one worth fighting for. He believes that it will eventually become law. 

“Legalization is coming, and Sen. Gazelka in the end can’t stop that,” Winkler said. “It’s much better to be constructive and have a role in shaping the policy.”

The recent release of a new economic forecast, which showed a big change in Minnesota’s fiscal outlook, has set the stage for the budget work that will dominate the remaining months of the legislative session.

Lawmakers face a series of committee deadlines beginning at the end of this week that will start to bring committee discussions on policy matters to a close.

Three people sit at a table in an auditorium.
Gov. Tim Walz answers a question as Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, right, and House Speaker Melissa Hortman, left, listen during a legislative preview panel inside of the Minnesota Senate Building in St. Paul, on Feb 5, 2020.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2020

Some may view the pursuit of deeply partisan legislation as a waste of time. But House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, sees lawmakers making sincere attempts to improve peoples’ lives through their proposals.

“It’s not an exercise in demonstrating to the world what we stand for,” Hortman said. “It’s an attempt to make this the law of Minnesota.”

Hortman also knows that anything can happen in the closing days and hours of a legislative session when leaders try to hammer out agreements. She agreed with Gazelka that those competing ideas can be the key to finding compromise.

“I think it’s entirely appropriate that Senate Republicans are pursuing policies that they think will improve Minnesota, and House Democrats are pursuing policies we think will improve Minnesota,” Hortman said. “And it really remains to be seen what shakes out in the end.”