Daily Reformer: Hortman muses on longer legislative session, fewer legislators

House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, addresses reporters on Sep. 11 ahead of the start of a special legislative session. Photo by Ricardo Lopez/Minnesota Reformer

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I spoke this morning to Minnesota House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, who said House and Senate committee chairs are working to meet their Friday deadline to finish up budgets. 

“These are reasonable deadlines and there’s no reason people can’t meet them,” Hortman said. 

The era of pandemic legislating is over, she said. Members will be welcome back to the House floor and they don’t have to wear masks. I reminded her of the city of St. Paul’s ongoing mask mandate. “Oh (expletive), let me check on that,” said Hortman, who has a bit of an endearingly salty mouth. She was raised in the family junkyard business. 

Hortman also shared her thoughts on reforming the Legislature. It’s a two-pronged approach: Lengthening the legislative calendar and reducing the size of the House. The former idea is no surprise: When lawmakers get the economic forecast on March 1 or so of the budget year, they have just about 10 weeks to make decisions on more than $50 billion. 

It’s kinda crazy if you think about it. She thinks current deadlines are likely intractable given the fiscal year calendar starting July 1, but ending the session on the third Monday in May is unrealistic and should be pushed out. Indeed, special legislative sessions, especially in budget years, have become routine. 

As I reported in this space previously, Majority Leader Ryan Winkler thinks the Legislature should be full time, pointing out the oddity that two branches of government are full time, while the people’s representatives are part time. 

Hortman’s other idea — a smaller House down from the current 134 to closer to 90 — is much more surprising. Telling your colleagues you want to eliminate some of them isn’t usually high on a politician’s list. 

As she notes, the longer calendar would require a constitutional amendment. These changes would not take effect until perhaps 2030.

Hortman says there’s research on the optimal size of a productive meeting, and the sheer size of the House means committees are too large. (This is very Hortman-esque: We’re here to get stuff done!) And then there’s the endless, time-consuming House floor debates. In 2019, there were something like 636 floor amendments. If you’ve watched House floor debates, you know of what she speaks: 

“It’s repetitive and unproductive and it’s a real time management problem,” she said. 

Reducing the size of the House is also a necessary olive branch to Minnesotans who would need some inducement to agree to the longer calendar, she said. She said she’s had preliminary conversations about all this with Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka and Winkler. (And now Reformer readers!) 

Hortman, who has two adult children, is training a golden retriever named Gilbert for a group called Helping Paws, for which volunteers train pups to become service dogs. She’s not sure Gilbert is service dog material though. “He loves everybody too much,” jumping on visitors, which means “50 pounds of love coming at you,” she said.  

I tried to get her to make a political analogy out of it, but she passed. 

J. Patrick Coolican
J. Patrick Coolican is Editor-in-Chief of Minnesota Reformer. Previously, he was a Capitol reporter for the Minneapolis Star Tribune for five years, after a Knight-Wallace Fellowship at the University of Michigan and time at the Las Vegas Sun, Seattle Times and a few other stops along the way. He lives in St. Paul with his wife and toddler son.