Tuesday, April 30, 2013

(Repost) The Artful and Foxy Words of Fine Print

With the 2013 Minnesota Legislature in three weeks ending the public again needs to be astute what are in those bills particularly this year with the budget.  I did this post a year ago.  The same points are just as valid now as then. Here it is:

As the Minnesota Legislature races towards the end be aware of that A-222 amendment which may have a short sentence with several words and placed on a conference committee bill or a so called must pass bill for the "sake of the state."

As the public has learned from such behavior in the past it can be hard to correct once the public finds out.  Just review the various media reports after last years shutdown.  Many stories of legislative surprises, revealing switches of money, and just out right "magical" disappearing of legislative language.

In the past, I have seen and discover such amendments,  There are many I ignore, some I tell others about, or I take action.  Several years ago, the Chair of the House Commerce Committee adopted a short sentence as an amendment, a provision which would have turned our state's strong medical privacy laws into Swiss cheese.  I spoke with him.  Did not see an issue.  I spoke with other legislators, but also with other privacy advocates.  The provision was taken out.

Another way of how things slip in is the "mumbo jumbo" of referring to Chapter 628 of the 5th subdivision, paragraph (a) with a few words added.  Many times law is made by amending current law.  But many people including legislators sometimes do not understand what an amendment may do.  The question may not be asked what the change may do to current law.

A case in point.  I spoke with a legislator this week about an amendment to our medical records statute.  She told me what the purpose of it was.  I said that was incorrect because it is already in current law.  She read the current law and decided to do language appropriately with what she and others wanted.

The Omnibus tax bill, the Health and Human Services bill, Legacy bill, among others including the "People's Stadium" bill is edging slowly its way towards the finish line.

We the public need to Stop, Look, and Act if we see sly, crafty, and smooth language in the bills we do not understand. So do the elected legislators we put into office.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Games, Legislature plays with birth records and Mayo

This past week events at the Legislature reminded me of the Spinners mid 70's title song, Games People Play.  So much game playing on important legislation that affects accountability, transparency, and integrity of the legislative process.

First example, an amendment reared its head on a bill last Tuesday that would make all birth records data that is now public, confidential, except for a limited set of data.  HF 1233, Omnibus Health and Human Service Finance bill had a 474 page amendment with 12 new pages of policy language which never saw the light of day in the hearing process.  Those twelve pages were from pages 388 to 399.  The proposal dealt with the Minnesota Department of Health's vital statistics unit.  The law would also apply to local units of government where many people look up birth and death records.

The concerns about the bill that I had were several fold, one was the process, where new language magically appeared with no notice to the public, secondly, making birth records that have generally been public since the State of Minnesota began secret, and thirdly, fees to be charged to the public for inspecting and reviewing vital statistic records.  For example, last summer I looked at my grandma's birth certificate for free. I contended under the proposed language I would now be charged $9.00.

Granted, the language was eventually introduced as a bill yesterday as HF 1780.   But it was 6 days after the language appeared in an amendment that more than likely the general public did not know about.

Many times whether or not policy language that has not been introduced as a bill has the inertia to become law depends on who is at the meeting.  An old adage I believe in, "Laws are made by those who show up." In the House Human Services and Health Finance Committee last Tuesday, the new vital statistics language was adopted.  Public testimony on the bill was to be taken the following day.

I chose to testify.  I testified my concerns. Many times legislators may not know specifics about what a bill does or even how it came about.  Reason why importance for open public hearings and due notice.

Bottom line, House members on a bi-partisan basis believed that the language should not go forward.  It was taken out on the House side.  On the Senate side, a part of the proposal was deleted, the section dealing with making birth records confidential.

Second example, today there was a hearing on HF 1780 in the House Civil Law Committee.  Appeared unusually and strangely an amendment that would give a new entity, secrecy and a carve out from the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act.  It would give this new entity unprecedented secrecy with data where members are public appointees.  The new entity is the Destination Medical Center Corporation, the purpose of the entity is new development for the Mayo Clinic with hundreds of millions of public dollars and Mayo's dollars.

The public and many legislators did not see the amendment until today.  The amendment pushed by the Chief Author of the Rochester Development bill presumed that the Civil Law Committee would pass the amendment on an an unrelated bill.  This was not to be the case.  Again that statement. "Laws are made by those who show up".

A bi-partisan approach of questioning by Representatives Holberg, Paymar, Chairman Lesch, Scott and others led to Lesch taking the initiative to state basically the amendment is not ready for prime time yet.  The amendment was laid over for the public and legislators to work on to make sure that a development that will get hundreds of millions of public dollars will be accountable and transparent.

The Mayo language is on the Senate side more than likely, but as of this post writing I have not been able to locate it.

The game playing of placing amendments on bills as the session winds down is not new.  Every legislator wants their bill to continue to live until it becomes law.  But to compromise integrity of the process by not giving due notice to the public even legislators of these kinds of proposals I have highlighted is a tragedy of the system itself.  As a bill gets to the floor, it is harder to kill or amend, the burden of persuasion is tougher, this is one reason why there is a committee process.

Those legislators that stand up to integrity for the legislative process, the public needs to commend you.