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To curb the impact of special-interest money on politics, Minnesota needs more, not fewer, rules

MinnPost photo by Briana Bierschbach
Minnesota State Capitol

One not so hidden agenda at the state Capitol this year has been the assault on administrative rules and regulations. Administrative law and rules are not the sexiest tropics in the world, but they are at the core of how governments and agencies actually enforce and implement laws. Without administrative rules, government cannot function.

schultz portrait

David Schultz

Led by a Republican majority in both the House and Senate, there is an effort to weaken if not eliminate many of the powers administrative agencies have to make and enforce rules. Several bills have sought to cripple the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency by either taking away its rule-making power or by making it so difficult to make or enforce rules that many of the state and federal environmental laws they are supposed to enforce will be effectively be ignored.

But there is also another quiet revolution on another set of rules at the legislature – and it involves the powers of the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board (Campaign Finance Board). The Campaign Finance Board enforces the state campaign finance laws affecting candidates, parties, and political action committees, including the ones regarding lobbying and disclosure. To do its job, the Campaign Finance Board has to make rules, especially in an era where the legislature has consistently for the 20-plus years refused to take any action. Leading the charge is former Secretary of State and now Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer. Of note among her many “kill all the rules” bills, is SF 839, which would bar the Campaign Finance Board from making new rules.

Political ethics: Minnesota comes off badly

Minnesota does not need fewer rules but more — or at least better ones — to address the impact of special-interest money on state politics. The best accounting of the current sorry state of Minnesota’s political ethics laws comes from the nonpartisan and well-respected Center for Public Integrity. In several reports Minnesota comes off badly compared to other states. In its 2009 study on legislative financial disclosure laws, Minnesota receives an F grade, coming in 40th among the 50 states. In 1999 the same study ranked Minnesota 35th and in 2009 39th. Minnesota was found deficient in the range of disclosure it asks of legislators and also in terms of them updating that information.

A 2012 study by the center measured political accountability and risk of corruption in the state. Minnesota received a D+ grade, finishing 25th among states. Notable in this study, Minnesota receives a D- when it comes to effective conflict-of-interest laws, a D on political financing, and an F on lobbyist disclosure. Minnesota simply failed to make the grade when it comes to political ethics before the Rest-Winkler bills, and now it will fall even further back. Finally, the same study in 2015 graded Minnesota a D-, and ranked it 28th in terms of our state political ethics laws.

An already weak enforcement agency

Budget cuts over the years along with a thin legislative mandate already have turned the Campaign Finance Board into one the weakest state ethics or campaign enforcement agencies in the country. Overall, contrary to what many think, Minnesota’s laws when it comes to political ethics and campaigns are quite bad.

One consequence of the steadily weakened political ethics and campaign laws has been the political polarization and gridlock at the Capitol. While there are many reasons for this gridlock, one major contributing factor has been the deregulation of money in politics, freeing up special interests to affect both campaigns and the actual agenda at the legislature. To put it mildly, Minnesota regulation of its campaigns, election, lobbying, and legislative behavior is horrible, and Kiffmeyer’s bill would only make it worse.

David Schultz is a Hamline University professor of political science. His latest book is “Presidential Swing States: Why Only Ten Matter.”

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Sean O'Brien on 03/01/2017 - 01:47 pm.

    Thanks

    Well stated Professor Schultz. The people of Minnesota need to convince their legislators that we need better regulation of campaign finance, government tranparancy, and public disclosure. This will be a necessary, but hard fight. Legislators of both sides will resist efforts to put stricter rules in place.

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