How does the Minnesota Legislature work? Two nonpartisan experts explain

Minnesota State Capitol
The Minnesota State Capitol.
Tim Nelson | MPR News

Voters have elected lawmakers at the Minnesota Legislature that more accurately reflect the people in our state. 

At least 35 out of 201 legislators identify as people of color and 11 of the local lawmakers identify as LGBTQ and that’s the most representation we’ve seen yet.

Three Black women were elected to the Minnesota Senate, the first in the 164 years it has been around. 

These lawmakers are meeting over the next few months to talk about important policies that will impact communities around the state. 

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Tom Bottern and Elizabeth Lincoln, two nonpartisan administrators who work at the Minnesota State Capitol, joined MPR News host Angela Davis to share how to follow and influence the decisions that will directly impact people around the state. 

two guests an intern and a host in the studio
MPR News host Angela Davis talked with Tom Bottern and Elizabeth Lincoln, two people who work at the Minnesota State Capitol, about how the Minnesota Legislature works.
Maja Beckstrom | MPR News

Here are four key moments from the conversation.

The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity. Click the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

What’s unique or different about this session?

Tom Bottern: Things are happening really fast and whether you like it or not, there's one-party control of state government in Minnesota and that's the driving factor. The number of bills that have been introduced in each chamber is staggering compared to previous years, about 30 or 40 percent higher, depending on which week you measure it. You can see the number of committees that are hearing bills and producing what's called a committee report, and what committee has taken action on that bill. The number of bills that have been enacted so far and the amount of time spent on the floor of the Senate and the House is way ahead of where it normally is.

Elizabeth Lincoln: Things are moving very quickly. This is the busiest month for committee action. Today in the House they’re hearing 50 bills, there are 29 hearings scheduled between the House and Senate, so it’s a very busy week, busy month, but the pace of things is far exceeding previous years.

What’s the most effective way to talk to a state senator or representative?

Tom Bottern: Legislators are going to have their own preferences and I can't speak to all of those. There's a high volume of email, there's a timing factor to a lot of this and it's difficult when things are really busy to find the time to respond. But I think calling the office, speaking to their legislative assistant, and looking for some engagement by thinking ‘how would this member like to hear more about my concerns?’ is really the best way to jump into it.

Elizabeth Lincoln: At the bottom of almost every screen on the legislative website, there is a link to really important phone numbers like House information and Senate information in the library. They answer their phones all the time. It also gets you to the phone numbers and emails, in many cases, of legislative staff and legislators.

Legislators got elected, so they're generally really good at talking to people and I think they value the thoughts of their constituents.

All three buildings are wide open: the Capitol, the State Office Building, and the Minnesota Senate building. You can go and try to meet with your legislator — sometimes it is not possible but you're always welcome in those spaces. 

What should we know about committee hearings?

Tom Bottern: There is room for the public. The hearing rooms in the Senate building are very spacious, they can accommodate the public, it's easy to see and hear everything that's happening. Usually at the end of the hearing there is an opportunity for the public to testify. Usually folks have a minute or two to provide their testimony. My hot tip would be don't read your canned notes word for word. Think about a personal experience you may have that touches on the bill and a story you'd have to tell the committee.

During COVID, everything had to be remote, which meant that basically all hearings were streamed on YouTube. That practice has largely remained in place. 

Elizabeth Lincoln: I think there's now a much higher level of expectation of being able to watch a hearing in real time, or being able to watch it an hour later after it ended. So I think the House has four constant streams and the Senate has two constant streams. You really can watch nearly anything that's going on in the Legislature. It's remarkable.

How is a bill made?

Tom Bottern: Once the legislature is convened for the year, any member can introduce as many bills as they want. Once a bill is introduced, it has to be referred to a committee — it's probably going to be referred to the committee of primary jurisdiction. A lot of bills get stacked up in committee and they almost always will not hear all bills, so it helps for a bill to have co-authors. If there are a lot of authors, there’s a lot of interest in the bill.

Elizabeth Lincoln: One point I wanted to make is that the House has the ability to have up to 35 authors; the Senate, I think, is limited to five. That sort of really clarifies the level of interest in a bill, especially if there is bipartisan support, meaning both parties signing on to the bill. 

Bill amendments are drafted also by the Minnesota House Research Department, Senate Counsel, Research and Fiscal Analysis Office and others. I think the House has a much more formal process for amendments on the House floor; the Senate is a little bit more liberal. We've been to lots of committee hearings where there's an oral amendment and the Senate Counsel or House Research person is writing it down as they speak. 

Your opinions on the legislature

Listeners called into the show and shared their opinions on the Minnesota Legislature. Here are a couple of them.

‘My senator is a really good listener’

I would love to share my experience of a connection with my senator Julia Coleman. As part of a coalition, we got some time scheduled at the Capitol for an economic and financial literacy advocacy day, which got snowed out and the Capitol was closed. As a result, we did another outreach to reschedule and I was able to connect with both Julia Coleman and Lucy Rehm’s legislative assistants for 15 minutes. In addition to my senator, we were able to have four people on the call to talk about our concerns regarding a proposed requirement for a personal finance course to be part of the graduating requirement to graduate from high school for the state of Minnesota. I'm a financial planner, so I see the need for this all the time, we all see it in our community and in our country.

– Janet in Chanhassen

‘I have been able to meet my legislator for ten years’

For the last decade, the event processes at the Capitol have been really accessible. I'm a member of NAMI (The National Alliance on Mental Illness) and Thursday this week, NAMI and a number of organizations will get together to talk about all of the different bills. Then we have a rally in the rotunda at about noon and then we go off and we meet with our individual legislators. I made an appointment with one of my legislators who has time in the afternoon and I've done this, as I said, for about the last decade. 

– Tammy in Rochester

Useful resources

Here are some websites and social media platforms that might be of interest:

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