Minnesota Legislative History - Step by Step
Library staff assistance should not be construed as a substitute for professional legal research aid.
Introduction to Legislative History: An Overview
The primary sources of information for Minnesota legislative history research are the minutes of legislative committees and the audio and video recordings of House and Senate committee hearings and floor sessions. Online access to those recordings is available from House, Senate, and Commission Audio and Video.
Multimedia recordings do not exist prior to 1991. When recordings do not exist, the House and Senate committee minutes are the primary source of information for legislative intent research. House committee minute books from 1919-1998 and Senate minutes from 1911-1998 are at the Minnesota Historical Society Library. Committee minute books from 1999 to the present are at the Legislative Library. Many of the minutes have been posted online since 2005. Please see the Legislative History Location of Materials Guide for details about these resources.
Legislative History Step by Step
Step 1. Find the Minnesota Statute that you want to research.
If you don't know the statute number, you can find it through a key-word search of the Minnesota Statutes. If you already know the statute, find it by statute number.
Step 2. Find the Session Law that created or amended the statute language you are researching.
If you already know the Session Law number, go to Step 3.
Look at the History note at the end of the statute section. The citations refer to the Laws of Minnesota, also known as Session Laws. Each citation includes the year of the law, the law chapter number (c), the section number (s), and sometimes an article number (art).
Click on the history note citations and look through the laws until you find the law that contains the language you are researching. New language is underlined and deleted language is crossed out.
Step 3. Identify the bill number
Look at the beginning of the chapter to locate the bill number. There will be either a Senate File (S.F.) or House File (H.F.) number listed after the chapter number.
Note: If you are researching a bill that passed after 1994, go to Step 4. If your bill passed prior to 1995, go to Step 5.
Step 4. Find committee and floor debate information (after 1994).
While looking at the beginning of the session law (online version), on the right side of the page there is a section in red titled, "Resources". Under that is a link to "History and Authors".
That brings you to the bill status table which records all actions on the bill and includes the bill text, information on authors, and a link to companion bill information. (Step 5 has additional information about what is included on that table. The print format is different, but the categories are the same.) There is a link near the top of the bill status table titled "Further Committee Actions". For more recent years, it links you directly to minutes and audio/video of committee hearings. If there are no links, there may be committee information. If there is no information in that link, use the status table to find committee names and the dates of committee referrals and reports. If there was a conference committee, note the dates.
Also make a note of the dates of Senate and House floor actions. If online audio/video is available, floor sessions will be arranged by date on the audio/video archives pages: House, Senate, and Commission Audio and Video.
Note: When finished with Step 4, go to Step 6.
Step 5. Find committee and floor debate information (before 1995).
You will have to use print records to find the legislative history on bills prior to 1995. The Minnesota Senate and House each prepare a record of actions on all bills introduced during a 2-year (biennial) session. These are known as the Journal of the Senate and the Journal of the House. If you have a House File (HF) you will start with the House Journal; if you have a Senate File (SF) you will start with the Senate Journal. Find the correct year and look up your bill in the index.
Definitions of the terms used in the Journals can be found in the Glossary for the Numerical Index of the House and Senate Journals. For further help, see: Using the House and Senate Journals.
Bill status information:
Look up each page number listed. The number in the "First Reading and Reference" column refers to the page where the bill was introduced and referred to the first committee. Turn to that page and note which committee the bill was referred to and the date (at the top of the page). Additional information on committee actions is usually in the "Other Proceedings" and "Second Reading" columns. Be sure to note the dates of all committee referrals and committee reports. With those dates, you have a general idea of when the committee hearings occurred. Step 6 helps you identify the specific hearing dates.
Look up the remaining page numbers and note all relevant actions and the dates they occurred. Those additional actions may include floor session debates/votes and conference committee actions. If recordings of floor sessions are available, they are accessed by date. If there is a conference committee, note the date that the conference committee was created and the date of the conference committee report.
The next step is to look up actions on the companion bill. The companion bill is a similar bill introduced in the other body. The index volume has a section called "Companion Numbers/Bills". Look up your bill number on that table to see if a companion bill exists. If so, write down that number. Go to the Journal of the other body and go through the same process of recording relevant actions on that bill.
Only one of those companion bills can ultimately pass the legislature. If one of the companion bills is passed by the full Senate or House, that bill (SF or HF) is sent to the other body. At that point, the second body stops using its original bill and starts using the companion bill. In order to track the actions of a companion bill sent to the other body, use the journal index. In the Senate Journals there is a section in the index called, "Senate Record of House Bills". In the House Journal index, it's called the "Numerical Index of Senate Bills Transmitted to the House". Again, record all relevant actions and dates.
Step 6. Determine actual committee hearing dates.
Once you know committee names and the committee referral and report dates, the next step is to find out the exact hearing date(s). This is done by using the committee minute books. Each standing committee in the Senate and House is required to keep minutes of every committee hearing. Committee books include an index of all bills referred to a committee during the legislative biennium. The index records the date(s) a bill was heard in the committee or in divisions or subcommittees of the parent committee. The minutes provide a record of committee meetings including the agenda, members present, names of those testifying, and a record of actions and decisions. They may also include copies of bills and amendments or handouts distributed during a hearing. The minutes do not include meeting transcripts.
Conference committees are different than regular standing committees. Staff at the Legislative Library or the Minnesota Historical Society can help you determine if minutes or recordings exist.
Location of minute books:
Minnesota Historical Society Library: House: 1919-1998, Senate: 1911-1998.
Minnesota Legislative Reference Library: 1999 to the present (Senate and House).
Minutes have been posted online since 2005. Please see the Legislative History Location of Materials Guide for details about these resources.
Step 7. Listen to (or watch) the committee hearings and floor debates
House, Senate, and Commission Audio and Video are available from the Legislative Reference Library. If you are listening to the sessions of the full House or Senate, floor logs may exist. Multimedia recordings do not exist prior to 1991.
When audio and/or video of committee hearings are unavailable, minutes are the primary records of committee actions. The amount of detail provided by committee minutes varies among committees and from year to year. Even when minutes lack detail, they can provide clues to why legislation was passed.
- The minutes may indicate that a bill before the committee was the product of a task force, commission, or work group set up to study the issue. The report might be appended to the minutes or be available at the Legislative Reference Library or the Minnesota Historical Society. Librarians at both locations can help you search their collections; you can also search MNPALS, the online catalog which includes both collections.
- Attachments to the minutes may prove helpful. There may be reports, brochures, handouts, bill summaries, or copies of individuals' testimonies.
- The minutes may indicate that the bill was based on legislation passed in another state, leading to further avenues for research.
- Check Minnesota Statutes Annotated (West Publishing) for references to law review articles or case law written on the relevant section of the statutes.
- Consult issues of Session Weekly (1995-present) from the Minnesota House of Representatives or Senate Briefly (1995-2009) from the Minnesota Senate for the year you are researching. Both publications summarize their respective committees' discussions and floor actions on a weekly basis during Session. Issues from 1985 to the present are available at the Minnesota Legislative Reference Library.
- Consult news coverage from the year you are researching. The Minnesota Historical Society retains copies of all Minnesota newspapers. The Legislative Reference Library has extensive news clipping files from 1969 to the present, by topic and by legislative district.
- Check any personal papers that may have been donated to the Minnesota Historical Society from the individuals and groups involved/interested in the legislation.
- Be certain you are researching the correct year. The legislature sometimes moves language from one section of statutes to another section. It is possible that the language you are researching, or similar language, may have existed previously in a different section of Minnesota Statutes.
- Check for other bills that were introduced on this topic, then check to see if they had hearings. This can be extremely helpful when researching omnibus bills. It's also possible for an issue to be discussed over several years before actually passing. For these issues it may be useful to research years prior to the passage of the legislation.
Note: The Minnesota Historical Society (MHS) Library also has an in-depth guide on legislative history research. The House of Representatives' April 30, 1999, issue of Session Weekly featured an article on researching legislative history, "Step-by-step study uncovers the stories behind laws." The article, beginning on page 16, includes tips and examples.