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Conference committees remain mystery

ST. PAUL - For 10 weeks, 201 Minnesota legislators have debated issues in committees and on the House and Senate floors; now the legacy of the 2006 Legislature rests in the hands of legislative leaders and about 50 lawmakers on often-maligned con...

ST. PAUL - For 10 weeks, 201 Minnesota legislators have debated issues in committees and on the House and Senate floors; now the legacy of the 2006 Legislature rests in the hands of legislative leaders and about 50 lawmakers on often-maligned conference committees.

The theory behind conference committees is simple: The House and Senate often pass bills on the same subject, but not identical. The bills go to conference committees to work out differences.

A committee sends its final product to the House and Senate for votes. If both chambers pass the conference committee report, it heads to the governor for his signature.

That sounds simple, but as with most things legislative, conference committees are more mysterious than they would seem on the surface.

The mystery begins with how committee members are appointed. Each body's leaders appoint three or five committee members. By tradition, the bill's author in each chamber is a conference committee co-chairman and a majority of members come from the chamber's majority party (now Republicans in the House and Democrats in the Senate).


The co-chairmen alternate being in charge of committee meetings. The chairman of the day decides where and when the committee meets, and sets the agenda.

Picking the right committee members is an art.

Take the current professional stadiums conference committee. Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson, DFL-Willmar, said he made sure to appoint only stadium supporters.

While most senators he appointed like a Twins-Vikings stadium bill the Senate passed, Johnson also appointed Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Fairmont, who wants a different method of funding stadiums than the Senate approved. Johnson said he needed one Republican on the committee in an effort to get GOP support for a final project. Johnson also put Sen. Don Betzold, DFL-Fridley, on the committee because he authored a bill to build a Vikings stadium, which in recent days was merged with a Twins stadium bill.

In the House, Speaker Steve Sviggum, R-Kenyon, avoided putting supporters of a Vikings stadium on his half of the committee because Republican leaders think the Vikings stadium plan is full of holes.

Political strategy often determines when a meeting is called. Rep. Dan Dorman, R-Albert Lea, waited a couple of weeks before he scheduled a public works funding meeting. It took a news conference by DFL Sens. Keith Langseth of Glyndon and Wed Skoglund of Minneapolis to shame Dorman into meeting.

Usually a conference committee's first meeting is spent doing what lawmakers call "side by sides." That is when they go through comparisons of the two bills, usually printed on legal-sized pieces of paper with the two bills side by side.

Once the comparison is done, a committee may meet right away to begin working out a compromise. On some major bills - such as those spending billions of dollars - a committee may need to wait until legislative leaders and the governor reach an agreement on how much money can be spent. Often, the House and Senate pass bills spending far different amounts.


When a conference committee begins negotiations, often the House or Senate will make an offer to the other. In a budget committee, for instance, one side may give an offer agreeing to some spending the other side proposed, or at least move in that direction. Then the other side may counter with its own offer. The offers often go on for days until the sides agree on everything - or until they can't agree and legislative leaders have to step in and make the decision.

Such give and take doesn't always happen in public meetings. Sometimes the co-chairmen meet behind closed doors to work out a compromise, then present it to the full conference committee for a vote.

Legislative leaders often require a conference committee chairman to consult with them before making major decisions, keeping them in ultimate control.

In theory, conference committees must limit themselves to provisions in the House and Senate bills. In reality, things sometimes pop up that neither body debated, either thanks to legislative leaders who are pushing a proposal or a sly lawmaker who wants a pet project approved.

No one argues the fact that many conference committees often are at the same time boring and unpredictable. But legislators have found no way they feel will better work out differences between the House and Senate.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Don Davis at (651) 290-0707

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