December 1, 2009
“Are you in session right now?” my friend from Minnesota asked. In Minnesota, the Legislature went home a long time ago. But I am regularly traveling to Madison to conduct state business.
“Our ‘session’ doesn’t actually end until the campaign season officially begins next June,” I told him. The official ‘session’ begins on inauguration day in early January following an election year and ends in May with the beginning of the next election cycle.
The two-year calendar begins with the introduction and debate of the state’s two year budget. Legislators begin the important work of addressing issues brought forward by the people.
Many people believe the Legislature conducts its business when Senators and Representatives gather in the Senate and Assembly chambers to vote on bills – or to use Capitol lingo – when the Legislature is ‘on the floor’.
But the hard work of the Legislature is conducted before the full Senate and Assembly convene through the committee process and in offices around the Capitol. Most of the time when a bill goes ‘to the floor’ the controversies had been resolved in a committee.
As we enter the holiday season, committees are meeting and legislators are drafting bills. Work on pending legislation and issues important to citizens of our state will continue right up to Christmas and begin again immediately after New Year’s Day.
The committee process is a vital part of the overall legislative process. Committees schedule public hearings which bring people from all over the state to the Capitol to testify on bills. It is this public input that provides legislators with the information they need to understand the impact of any bill. Committee hearings can happen any time, even during the summer of a campaign year when the full Legislature is not officially ‘in session’.
I serve as the Senate Co-Chair to the Joint Committee on Audit. The work of the audit committee continues all year long as the Legislative Audit Bureau releases program reviews and financial statements of state programs and funds. I travel to Madison to meet with my counterpart in the Assembly, to receive briefings on audits just released and provide direction to the Audit Bureau and the state auditor. Since the activities of the state are on- going, so is the work of the state’s watch-dog – the Audit Bureau.
Even when Legislators go home to campaign, they can be called back by either the Governor in a Special Session or the Legislature itself in an Extraordinary Session. Early in the state’s history, the Governor would use a Special Session to bring Legislators back to address crises such as natural disasters, fiscal or economic emergencies or civil disturbances. Today, Special and Extraordinary Session provide the Governor and the Legislature a mechanism to convene lawmakers to address important public policy matters.
Regardless of whether the Legislature is ‘in session’ or not, issues of importance to people or the problems they encounter need to be addressed. Policy problems crop up and folks try to navigate the maze of state bureaucracy even when the Legislature has ‘gone home’. We are fortunate to have full-time staff that can help with policy research and help constituents.
Many legislative staff members have been working in the Capitol longer than many Legislators. They are an important source of historical information and support as we rookie legislators navigate the maze of the bill-making process and of lobbyists and special interests.
When lobbyists out-number Legislators eight to one, it makes a lot of sense for elected officials and their staff to keep the lights on and the pencils sharp in even during the quiet times. Some one needs to keep watch to make sure the people’s interests are put first on the list.