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Lawmakers wade through 8,000-plus bills

ST. PAUL - Rep. Tom Rukavina has introduced 66 bills during the current two-year legislative session, including at least one he knew would go nowhere.

It's a common story in the Minnesota Legislature.

Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, submitted a measure that would have reversed a St. Louis County ruling against a childhood friend. When he introduced it, Rukavina said he "wasn't serious" about the bill.

In a recent interview, Rukavina said he introduced the bill solely because his friend "was getting screwed. And I try to stick up for people who are getting screwed by government, and that's why I did it."

Rukavina has said he never meant the bill to go forward.

And so it was. The bill disappeared soon after he introduced it.

Thousands of other similar examples can be found in the Minnesota Legislature. Out of the more than 8,000 bills introduced so far during the 2007-08 session, many weren't long for this world.

That's because some were considered frivolous, others did not have the political support or still others were introduced because legislators were more committed to making a statement than they were to a particular issue.

"Introducing bills to satisfy a constituent is common," said Rep. Doug Mangus, R-Slayton. "Usually when people call me, they're in a spot, and they need my help. What I have to do is sit down and decide, is putting this in a bill the right way to go? I hate to put things in statute that affect a single person, but sometimes you have to do that."

The fate of statement-making bills and those considered too narrow help explain why, in this legislative cycle, only 263 bills have been sent to the governor out of 8,105 bills introduced through Wednesday. A few dozen more bills remain in play during this session, which must end May 19 or earlier.

"The trend over the last 20 years has been an increasing number of bills being introduced, but not necessarily passed into law," explained Rick Almer of the Senate Index Office, a non-partisan office that tracks bills through the legislative process.

Almer said the trend probably is based on the fact that lawmakers are more savvy about how to work the legislative process.

"The technology has changed, the members have changed," Almer said. "They're more sophisticated in using resources."

Almer said the rule of thumb during any given biennium - a two-year cycle - is that about 10 percent of bills introduced make it to the governor.

"But that's probably closer to 25 to 30 percent when you count all the bills that are part of an omnibus bill," added Scott Magnuson, director of the Senate Information Office. An omnibus bill is a large policy or finance bill that can incorporate as many as 150 individual bills.

Minnesota's Legislature works on a "companion" system. That means that while 8,105 bills have been introduced over the past two years, many are duplicates - one for the House, one for the Senate. And in some cases identical or nearly identical bills are introduced in the same chamber.

Bills that did not get a hearing this biennium, or were squashed after one hearing, include one allowing 18 to 20 year olds to drink alcohol in bars, co-sponsored by Rukavina, and a bill sponsored by Rep. Mike Jaros, DFL-Duluth, that would require child protective devices for shopping carts.

"I still think it's a good idea," said Jaros, who pledges to bring the bill back next session.

For years, Jaros fought to stop Minnesotans from using mobile phones while driving, but keeps bringing it back.

Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, sponsored a bill that would establish a Minnesota state anthem. But, "it ran into a brick wall," in a House committee, Urdahl said.

Without indicting any specific colleagues, Rep. Marsha Swails, DFL-Woodbury, rolled her eyes when asked about the high number of bills.

"When you simply say the number 8,000 bills generated from 201 legislators, that is overwhelming," Swails said.

"I do look at some of the bills that are labeled frivolous and sometimes wonder, 'what's the point?'" Swails said. "But we are a democratic organization, and every member in this room has the right to present their thoughts and ideas regardless what they are."

The revisor's office pepares every piece of legislation, but it's not clear how much it costs the $5.4 million agency to write each bill.

Revisor of Statutes Michele Timmons said that the 2007-08 biennium reached a near record in the number of bills introduced, but she doesn't know how the extra load affected revisor resources.

"We resist the temptation to define the cost to prepare a bill," Timmons said, "because it depends on how big a bill is or how much research is required, so it's hard to identify the true costs."

Despite the cost, House Majority Leader Tony Sertich, DFL-Chisholm, said he strongly believes "anything and everything can be considered in the Legislature."

"There is a cost," Sertich said, "but at the same time I don't think the public should be censored as far as how many ideas can go forward in changing up laws. If you were to ever cap it in some way, who's to say a very good idea wasn't the next one to come through?"