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Minnesota’s weak disclosure laws hinder public oversight

Jeremy Schroeder

Democracy only works when informed citizens keep an eye on the system, ensuring that the immense power of special interests is held in check. In our busy daily lives, taken up with work and family responsibilities, it’s hard to monitor the workings of government, too. No doubt, we would do our part if we knew things were heading in the wrong direction. But with Minnesota’s current inadequate disclosure laws, we may not know when to jump in.

We Minnesotans are proud of our reputation; our voter turnout, for example, is often touted as an example of our high level of civic engagement. But being engaged takes information; it’s necessary to know what is wrong in order to fix it.

Our state’s failing grades

Disclosure requirements help us do that. Yet Minnesota currently gets an “F” when it comes to lobbyist disclosure laws. And we get failing grades in political financing, legislative accountability, ethics enforcement agencies, and judicial accountability as well. The result is that special interests — from corporations to labor unions — can spend large amounts of money in the political arena and not make this information public. If this fact is troubling, it gets worse.

Unbeknownst to many citizens, Minnesota’s political system has been changing dramatically over the last few years. In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court found it unconstitutional to limit the amount of independent expenditures donated to a political organization such as a SuperPAC. This led to an increase in campaign spending throughout the nation, including here in Minnesota.

To counteract this, we passed regulations to require disclosure of these expenditures. The hope was that, while we would not be able to limit the amount of money spent, the public would at least know how much was being spent in an election, for what cause, and by whom. Unfortunately, the Minnesota Supreme Court found these disclosure regulations unconstitutional just last year.

More money, and no way to track it

During the most recent session of the Minnesota Legislature, a bill was introduced to address the court’s concerns. This legislation included stricter disclosure of lobbyists’ expenditures and conflicts of interests. However, the final version did not contain any of the proposed changes requiring disclosure. Ironically, it did contain a provision to raise the contribution limits to candidates’ campaigns.

Simply put, the bill increased the money that can be raised in a campaign without any way for the public to track it.

The Minnesota Legislature needs to make it a priority to fix our broken disclosure laws during the next legislative session. In fact, this needs to be taken care of before the fall elections.

Huge amounts spent on lobbying

Special interests are creeping into Minnesota politics. For example, just this last year more than $2.2 million was spend on lobbying the Legislature on the gay-marriage bill. With 201 members of the Legislature, that’s the equivalent of almost $11,000 per legislator.

Regardless of your position on the issues, citizens have the right to know where lobbying money comes from and where it is going. The first step we must take is to require stronger, modern disclosure laws so we all know who and what is influencing those we’ve entrusted to work for the betterment of us all.

Jeremy Schroeder is the executive director of Common Cause Minnesotaa nonpartisan, grassroots organization dedicated to restoring the core values of American democracy; reinventing an open, honest, and accountable government that works for the public interest; and empowering ordinary people to make their voices heard.


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Handshake photo by Flickr user Álvaro Canivell and used under Creative Commons license.

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