ST. PAUL -- Doors would open wide on party strategy meetings and end-of-session negotiations where many deals are struck, under a bill Sen. John Marty promotes as an alternative to a unicameral Legislature.
Marty supports Gov. Jesse Ventura's push to eliminate one house of the Legislature. But Marty thinks his bill offers unicameral opponents a means to fix the feature that registers the loudest gubernatorial complaints: conference committees.
Conference committees work out the differences between House and Senate versions of bills. When a quorum is present, the meetings must be open to the public, but much of the negotiating occurs in private splinter discussions.
Critics complain that process allows legislators to circumvent open-meeting laws. As long as a majority of committee members aren't present, the sessions can be closed.
''I've seen cases where they re-enact the negotiations in public. It's kind of like play acting,'' said Marty, DFL-Roseville. ''I can't see a good logical reason why we have to do these things behind closed doors.''
Senate Tax Chairman Doug Johnson, DFL-Tower, believes there would be more political theater if the closed-door huddles were banned.
''In the perfect world, I wish that we could do everything in (public),'' Johnson said. ''But there are times that that meeting becomes overloaded with politics.''
In last session's final days, Johnson and House Tax Chairman Ron Abrams, R-Minnetonka, met in private several times to close the gap between tax plans. The sessions allowed them to make concessions without resorting to political rhetoric that produces stalemates, Johnson said.
Marty doesn't buy that logic.
''I want someone to say to the public face-to-face that these things are too important to do in front of the public. I don't think it's defensible,'' he said.
He knows he faces a tough fight. Already, some are questioning how to define which negotiations would have to be open and how they might differ from informal chats.
While the governor would support Marty's approach, Ventura spokesman John Wodele said a unicameral Legislature is the best solution.
''I don't think the governor is looking at fallback positions at this time,'' he said.
Marty likely stands a better chance on the issue of caucus meetings.
The House GOP is the only one of four caucuses to regularly allow others into its meetings in the past couple of years. House Speaker Steve Sviggum, R-Kenyon, would like to see DFLers follow suit, and said Marty's bill could be the impetus.
''It's absolutely the right direction to go,'' Sviggum said.
In Montana, 22 news organizations successfully sued in 1998 to pry open the doors of the caucus rooms. A judge ruled that caucuses are meetings to discuss public business, and covered by the state open-meetings law.
Marty's bill still would permit closed sessions when the caucuses are dealing with staff appraisals or disciplinary matters.
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