March Madness — not on court, at the state Capitol

MARSHALL – From chili cook-offs, to child abuse prevention, medical marijuana to the Mayo Clinic, it has already shaped up to be a very busy legislative session.

How busy?

According to the website BillTrack50, Minnesota ranks near the top in the nation in the number of bills introduced this year. About 3,000 measures (including companion bills) have been filed in the House and Senate, which puts Minnesota No. 10 overall on BillTrack50’s list.

Compared to New York’s 10,000-plus bills currently under consideration, 3,000 seems like a small number; nevertheless, things are definitely hopping at the Capitol in St. Paul and don’t appear to be slowing down. So many issues are bouncing around the Capitol – legislators are on pace to surpass last year’s number of bills introduced – that some, such as medical marijuana, have already been tabled until next year.

“(It has been) super busy,” District 16A Rep. Chris Swedzinski, R-Ghent, said. “Some folks told me before session that now that I’m in the minority it will seem slow around here, but it’s probably busier than last year with all the people visiting and all the meetings over all these bills. It’s a pretty brisk schedule.”

And on top of all the bills, there’s Gov. Mark Dayton’s now-you-see-taxes, now-you-don’t budget proposal, along with the proverbial elephant stomping around the rotunda – the $627 million budget deficit for the next biennium.

District 22A Rep. Joe Schomacker said the budget should be the priority, “but we’ve already seen this year how the Legislature can get distracted by non-budget issues, even during a budget year. Budget bills haven’t been introduced yet this year, but now is the time to talk about policy reforms that can save the state money and better serve the people. Instead, we’re seeing bills brought forward on a whole host of other issues all across the gamut.”

But as Schomacker, a Republican from Luverne, said, more bills don’t necessarily mean more work or busier schedules.

“It depends on what the focus and priorities will be,” he said. “Two years ago, our House File 1 – relieving some permitting regulations so that businesses could expand in a timelier manner and create more jobs – was worked on in committee and was law by early March 2011.”

As of Monday, 430 more bills had been filed in the Minnesota House this year compared to 2013 – that’s 41 percent more than at the same point last year. And 551 more bills had been entered in the state Senate – 74 percent more than last year.

The fact that Dayton has scrapped his plan to expand his proposed sales tax to business services as part of a major overhaul to his original budget proposal could expedite the budget-balancing process to an extent. Still, there is sure to be plenty of debate on how best to balance the budget and fix another deficit.

That being said, is there such a thing as too many bills? One could argue that such a massive number of bills could muddle up priorities at the Capitol.

“There are two sides to the ‘too many bills’ debate and both have merit,” said Schomacker. “The side that argues no says that it’s an opportunity to explore ideas and ways to better serve the people of the state. Another side will argue that limits on bills introduced, like they do in other states, those that get introduced are clearly the more serious ideas and are ready for a public hearing.”

Swedzinski, of Ghent, doesn’t think there should be a cap put on the number of bills introduced; he’s blames poor time management on the deluge of bills that run up against deadline, which was Friday.

“We’ve had bills that literally we couldn’t even ask questions about,” he said. “I understand there’s a deadline, but we’ve been going for 10 weeks and haven’t seen a single jobs bill come to the floor. At the last minute we’re starting to see these policy bills coming through committee. It’s really scaled back our ability to debate on changes.”

Also up for discussion is a bonding bill. Dayton said he will release a proposal next week that will borrow a hefty $750 million for public works projects across the state. The plan, he said, will include funds for the expansion of civic centers in Mankato, Rochester and St. Cloud.