Thursday, May 26, 2011

What is so "special" about a special session?

In the next few weeks there will be a call by the Governor for a "Special Session" of the Minnesota Legislature.  The Governor is the only person that can call for a special session on "extraordinary occasions."  But there is something that is "special" before and after the unusual session starts.

An exceptional experience which is not seen in the regular session.  There will be either be no public input or testimony or very limited if at all up to and during the special session.  There are generally no public hearings.  The players from the Governor and his staff, including Commissioners will be interacting with the GOP Legislative Leader's and staff to try to work out differences between them on budget and policy matters. This process will be done through face to face meetings, e-mail, and through others forms of communication without any public meetings or notice, or access to the documents.

So you think that bill that was defeated during the past session is dead, be aware it may be in one of the bills that could be introduced during a special session.  There are many special interests who up to and during this unique session try to get legislation passed that could have been stifled by public testimony or a Chairperson of a legislative committee.  They will be knocking on the Governor and Legislative Leader's door.

It is far different from the public, open, and interactive legislative process where we can review and scrutinize bills, make public comment, and get people organized.  Generally, there will be arrangements and agreements between the Governor and Legislative Leaders.  The Governor will call for the special session.  The bills will be introduced, go through a process on the floors of each body, send it to the Governor, and he signs it.  This can be done in a matter of days.

Once the Legislature is called back in session they can do what they want to do and stay in session  until next January.  But, it is the Governor who can call the Legislator's back to St. Paul and he may not do it until there is general understanding between the parties.

Would it not be refreshing if the Legislative Leadership and Governor would give some time for the public to review the legislation which they agree on before the "Special Session."  That act alone would be very "special" about a special session

Monday, May 16, 2011

Democratic Process hijacked at Legislature.

As I stated in a previous posts, the last week or so at the Legislature the democratic process is compromised for sake of expediency, but sometimes it is done to keep discussion on a subject to a minimum. This happened today with an initiative by Senator Ortman.

The Omnibus Data Practices bill, SF 1143, was heard on the floor of the Senate today.  As the bill goes through process, there are amendments.  Sen Ortman offered an amendment that would have the State participate in the Department of Homeland Security, Secure Communities Program.  The amendment was adopted.  Some givens, the amendment was not introduced as a bill, sometimes a bill is introduced, but not given a hearing, therefore, legislators try to get the bill on a proposal that is on the passage of becoming law.

With the Ortman amendment not being introduced as a bill, people did not know about the possibility of this legislation.  So today in the Senate, opportunity for her amendment.  No public notice and no process for public input on the floor of the Senate.

When I found out that the amendment was adopted I was surprised. I know that there has been controversy on the Secure Communities program nationally. A number of national organizations have raised concerns and criticisms of the program.  For example, the ACLU and American Immigration Council have position papers on the program.  There papers are linked on the organizations names.  Recently, there have been articles reporting criticism of the program in the media.  Even the state of Illinois recently pulled out of the program.

I knew that the Secure Communities program has privacy and civil liberties issues.  With it being on the Senate bill I knew more than likely the issue could have a full hearing when the bill got to a conference committee which may be in a day or so.  This is done many times by legislators where an amendment is done in one body, but not in the other, and it is worked on in the conference committee.  When the process is done this way, organizations and groups are given notice, and also made aware that in conference committee they will have an opportunity to be heard.

But, low and behold at approximately 9:30pm, I saw on tweets that there was going to be a surprise policy amendment on the Crime Conference bill.  I said to myself, what could that be.  I thought maybe the familial DNA, then it appeared on the twitter machine, the Secure Communities amendment.

The amendment was placed on the Crime conference bill without due diligence public notice, no opportunity for interested parties who oppose or critical to testify, and done in a way which the democratic ideals are made a mockery.

There should have been a proper opportunity for people who so wished to testify on this amendment to be heard.

Good legislation is made when both sides can be presented and be heard.

Update------Additional news reports about Secure Communities program.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

A Day at the People's House

Today was not like any other Saturday for me.  The Minnesota Legislature was in session, a double feature with the Senate in the AM, and House in PM. The Legacy bill was up. I had input on that bill for transparency and accountability standards.  The castle defense/gun bill was up in the House also.  Senate had several civil law bills that can have impact on consumer rights.  Finally, there was the conference committee on Voter I.D.

I was thinking of spending the day at home watching the debate and tweet with others who follow the Legislature.  I saw the Senate session on Legislative TV.  The civil law bills dealing with statute of limitations and class action suits came up.  As the bills are being debated, the tweets all of a sudden are appearing this is bad for consumers, no, it is good for the business climate.  I watch the tweets on the twitter machine.

I decide to engage. I stated that business has opportunity to get legal reform because of GOP Legislature.  The bills being discussed have significant impact on our consumer rights.  I decide to make judgement on the two bills, I say the "consumer is neutered" by taking away their legal tools.  I leave with the question, Will Governor Dayton be our consumer interest protector?  Other words, veto the bills.

The Senate passed both bills.  The tweets start again.  With bi-partisan support both bills pass, the tweet said.  Again I engage.  How do you define bi-partisan I said.  Some response.  I left with one more "view" tweet, bi-partisan does not necessarily mean just a few votes from the other side.

By this time the adrenaline is following, I am getting itchy, I make a decision to go to the People's House.

The second feature on the double bill, the Minnesota House.  I enter the Capitol, hardly any lobbyists there. The Minnesota Police Chiefs and Sheriffs Association lobbyist as well as the Minnesota Gun Owners Civil Rights is there among others. I decide to plug in with the lap top.

The Legacy bill debate starts.  Again the twitter starts, the tweets describing the urban/rural split on funding.  Comments about how the Legacy bill acquires property, shameful the tweet says.  I engage, asking questions. Get some response.  Bottom line, I left with a tweet stating what will be the Governor's role in the Legacy drama.

Being in person at the Capitol makes all the difference in the world for communication and impact on legislation.  Spoke with several legislators, one indicated to me that language dealing with an issue I have been following will be stripped out of a bill, interacted with Co-Chair of a Conference Committee to see if a bill was still open to hear from Governor Dayton.  Talked with a lobbyist about an alternative way to get language passed before end of session.  Even set up an opportunity to talk with a lobbyist who wants input on an initiative for 2012.

I even interacted with young people and their hosts on prom dates from Central High School and St. Croix Lutheran who decided to use the inside of the Capitol for picture taking.  I said to one group of young people, my prom theme was "Color My World" by Chicago, half the group knew the song and group.  Their theme was "Arabian Nights".  Of course I said what was going on at the Capitol, what I did, and how they can make a difference.  A woman even shook my hand and said thanks.

The trailer was a short stop in the Voter I.D. Conference Committee.  If the bill becomes law I want to make sure that certain data that is collected for one purpose not be used for other purposes.  The position what I wanted was adopted.

The day at the People's House was productive.  It is important for the people of Minnesota to understand that you can make a difference, there are 9 days left til end of session.  No matter what your views are I encourage you to become engaged either through the phone, the "electronic" way, or as I still do the "face to face" way, or a combination of, on the issues you are concerned about.

Accountability, Openness, and Transparency of the Legislative process begins with you.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

End of Session, Minnesota Legislature makes significant/critical decisons in secret

Between now and the 23rd of May as the Minnesota Legislature aims for the end, there will be a number of meetings in secret the public may not know about, and will not able to participate in or observe.  The meetings are known as Caucus meetings and the Governor/Leadership meetings.

The Caucus meeting is when the political parties of both bodies break into a gathering to discuss the bills and issues that will come up for votes on the floor.  In these meetings, members let their hair down and talk directly and bluntly to each other on what their own and caucus position will be.  It is also where members may have problems with the position taken by the majority of the caucus and try to change it.  It also may be where pressure and influence is applied for members to vote a certain way.

In reality, at the end of session, it is these meetings, the Caucus and Governor/Legislative Leadership get together, where the most important legislative decisions are made.  The public are not able to hear the arguments and deliberations, or know the reasoning to the conclusion or resolution of these secret meetings.

Historically, the Legislative leaders and the Governor negotiate budget deals in secret.  The meetings are pretty exclusive in which the public and even members of the legislative bodies are forbidden from the process.  There are yielding of positions or trade offs that happen between the leaders and the Governor.  The special interest groups who may have that special relationship can get their views heard over others in these kind of meetings. The compromise or agreement is sometimes done to the last minute, and then is spit out to only get a passing, or even a haphazard analysis by the public and the legislators before they vote.

The public wants to know and participate in the making of the sausage, not to get the "rolled up" sausage and not know what's in it.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Collision Course with Self-incrimination

As the Legislature winds down there are proposals that sometimes miraculously appear and reappear in bills, finding a life of its own.  It seems this is happening with a provision which was originally in HF1060, section 5.

The proposed provision would allow MnDot to have access to accident reports for purposes of restitution. Accident reports are different than police reports.  Accident reports is part of Federal law that mandate states to have individuals fill out when they are in an accident.  This data is only for accident analysis and only can be accessed for that purpose and only when a person can claim for specific damage with detail.

What MnDot proposes for efficiency and ease of access will allow them to have access to your private data without necessarily having specific reason to do so.  In other words, MnDot wants to "riffle" through your accident reports to see if you may have been the person who damaged property.

The issue is this, data collected for one purpose, accident analysis.  Accident analysis is done to make roads and traffic situations safer for us.  The government offers confidentiality and bars use of the data you put in the accident report for various legal situations.(Minn. Statute 169.09, subdivision 13).  The government wants you and encourages you to be honest.

Then an agency sees the goldmine of data for other purposes, in this case, MnDot. Who will be the next agency or public entity that wants it?

Government and the Legislature has to decide what they want from the individual, to be frank and honest in an accident report and promise that the data will be kept private and used for the purpose told. or, tell the individual that the data can be used for different purposes, therefore the person more than likely will not be honest and frank to help improve safety for the roads and us.

The House Data Practices Committee last week had serious questions about this provision.  It did not go forward.  It appeared magically in HF1068, Section 39.  On the Senate side, it is in SF1149.

Here goes the government again collecting data for one purpose, then using it for another purpose without your consent or knowledge.