Minnesota legislative leaders divided over the idea of going full time

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Minnesota lawmakers have 120 days over two years to do their work each bi­en­ni­um. For DFL House Speaker Me­lis­sa Hortman, that's no long­er en­ough.

She said the Minnesota Leg­is­la­ture, which has a hab­it of going into o­ver­time to fin­ish its job, should switch to full time. Minnesota is a­mong the ma­jor­i­ty of states that have a part-time leg­is­la­ture.

GOP Senate Majority Lead­er Paul Gazelka does not want to get rid of the existing ap­proach, where far­mers, law­yers, teach­ers, doc­tors and oth­ers jug­gle those jobs with com­ing to the Capitol to pass laws.

"I think the cit­i­zen leg­is­la­tor con­cept, where you have peo­ple from all walks of life come in and give part of their time to the state of Minnesota as a Leg­is­la­ture, is the way it should be," Gazelka said.

Hortman, mean­while, said they aren't able to spend en­ough time on pri­ori­ties, such as clos­ing ed­u­ca­tion op­por­tu­ni­ty gaps, be­cause they have such a tight dead­line to set the state's budg­et.

"We get the [state eco­nom­ic and budg­et] fore­cast on March 1, and then we're sup­posed to turn around a $50 bil­lion budg­et by May 17," Hortman said. "There's a lot more pol­icy work that we re­al­ly give short shrift to be­cause we're so fo­cused on the budg­et."

Ten states, in­clud­ing Wis­con­sin and Mich­i­gan, have full-time legis­la­tures. Lawmakers' av­er­age annu­al com­pen­sa­tion is $82,358 in those states, with an av­er­age of 1,250 employees work­ing for the leg­is­la­ture. In states with a part-time leg­is­la­ture, lawmakers' pay av­er­ages $41,110 and the staff total is about 469, ac­cord­ing to National Conference of State Legislatures data from 2014 and 2015.

The switch to a full-time lawmaking body, which would re­quire a state con­sti­tu­tion­al a­mend­ment by voters, is not the only re­form Hortman sup­ports. If they move to full-time, she said that change should be paired with a re­duc­tion in the num­ber of legis­la­tors, which does not re­quire a con­sti­tu­tion­al change.

Minnesota has 134 House mem­bers and 67 sena­tors, mak­ing it one of the lar­ger legis­la­tures in the coun­try, though nowhere near New Hamp­shire's whop­ping 424 lawmakers.

"There's no mag­ic to the 134. It has been var­i­a­ble sizes through­out Minnesota's his­to­ry. So I would rath­er go to some­thing like 90 [rep­re­sen­ta­tives] and 45 [sena­tors]," Hortman said, not­ing that would re­sult in a less crowd­ed House floor and fewer mem­bers "who feel like they need to say the same thing over and over."

Hortman said they would need to es­tab­lish the i­de­a well a­head of the 2030 cen­sus and redistricting. "That would be a nat­u­ral time to re­duce the size," she said.

Gazelka said he is open to the i­de­a of shrink­ing the size of the Leg­is­la­ture, but said there's not a lot of in­ter­est in that right now. How­ever, there is an­oth­er gov­ern­ment re­form he would like to see: chan­ges to the governor's em­er­gen­cy pow­ers.

More than 300 bills have been pro­posed in state capitals across the coun­try this year to ad­dress em­er­gen­cy pow­ers, he said, be­cause legis­la­tors are con­cerned the ex­ec­u­tive branch is doing too much on its own authority.

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