When it comes to civics and government, Minnesota tends to toot its own horn, but a national organization gives the state a “D-” for “State Integrity.” The Center for Public Integrity, a non-profit investigative news organization in Washington D.C., released its annual report today. News personalities like Arianna Huffington and journalists like CBS News’s Steve Kroft serve on the board. It should be noted that no state earned an “A” or “B” grade on the report and that California outranks the Gopher State in the report.
The Center for Public Integrity points to the final moments of Minnesota’s regular 2015 legislative session, where representatives were required to vote on a major budget bill that they hadn’t seen, and Speaker Kurt Daudt pushed through a vote despite last-minute Democrat opposition. Anyone who’s paid attention to the legislature knows that this scenario is par for the course and last-minute drama has occurred at the conclusion of nearly every session over the last decade, regardless of the party in charge.
While Minnesota touts government transparency with its open meeting laws for all levels of government, the state’s House and Senate have their own rules and only require that meetings be public if quorum is present. The result is backroom deals between a few members and the Governor that happen away from the public eye, as was again the case in the 2015 session. A citizen can observe open meetings of the many committees throughout the legislative process and monitor the actions of their elected representative via audio recordings or even live video streaming, only to find the bulk of the committee’s work virtually ignored in final budget votes.
The Center for Public Integrity reports, “The fact is, the work that gets done and the horse trading that goes on, always goes on behind closed doors,” said Mark Haveman, executive director of the Minnesota Center for Fiscal Excellence, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization.
Minnesota has a highly bloated state government and is home to the 5th largest legislature in the country with 201 total representatives and senators, even though the state is only the 21st largest based on population. This ratio of legislative size to citizen watchdogs also supports an environment where transparency is harder to come by.
The Center for Public Integrity gives “Lobbying disclosure” a “D-” in the report. Recall Senator David Tomassoni, (D-Chisholm), taking a job in January as Executive Director for the Range Association of Municipalities and Schools, an organization that lobbies the legislature and receives funding from another organization where Tomassoni is a board member, the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board, (IRRRB.) Tomassoni ultimately decided against the job after public pressure, even though he had vowed to recuse himself on votes that may involve a conflict. Minnesota’s Campaign Finance Board found that the Executive Director job did not represent any conflict of interest, which demonstrates the current accepted blurred line between elected representative and lobbyist.
The IRRRB itself is a quirk of Minnesota provincial politics whereby eight locally elected Democrats, (seven since the passing of Rep David Dill,) and one elected Republican, sit on the board that doles out $33 million in grants and loans to various local organizations and agencies in northern Minnesota. It’s been criticized as a DFL slush-fund for years and the Star Tribune reported in April that the IRRRB had lent $625,000 in tax funds to a call center in Eveleth that raises money for Democrat candidates. The Star Tribune recently reported that Tomassoni had “slipped in” a provision to the Senate tax bill that provided $6 million in property tax benefits for mining companies that will be distributed out via the IRRRB.
Republicans also have a member, Rep, Tim Sanders, (R-Blaine), Assistant Majority Leader, Chair of the House Government and Operations and Election Policy committee, with strong ties to lobbyists. Sanders is a current employee of lobbying firm Ainsley Shea, although he is not a registered lobbyist himself. Of course former Minnesota lawmakers often make the transition to lobbyist, 60 have taken lobbying positions since 2002, according to the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
The Center for Public Integrity report gives Minnesota an “F” for “State Pension Fund Management” for lack of disclosure and political interference in the process. Alpha News reported on the problems with state pensions in August. “Ethics Enforcement Agencies” also got a failing grade. The best grades were a “B” for “Internal Auditing”– Minnesota’s non-partisan legislative auditor’s office is widely recognized for providing excellent reports– and a “B-” for “Electoral Oversight.”