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It’s party time: Minnesota lawmakers change key ethics rules

MinnPost photo by James Nord
The bill, which was approved by both houses and signed into law by DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, also included a provision that increases from $100 to $200 the maximum contribution that can be accepted by political committees without disclosing the source.

At the start of the 2013 legislative session, members of the board responsible for administering Minnesota’s campaign and ethics laws thought they had a chance to strengthen these notoriously weak statutes. After all, reform-minded DFLers had recaptured control of both houses.

The state Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board offered two bills to improve Minnesota’s campaign and ethics laws, which in 2011 received a D+ rating from the national Center for Public Integrity. One bill was substantially weakened while the other never received a hearing in either house.

Instead, the Legislature’s new DFL majority went in the opposite direction. It approved an amendment relaxing Minnesota’s 20-year-old ban on gifts to public officials – the so-called Marty law, named after its author, Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville. The amendment will once again permit lavish legislative parties and receptions paid for by special-interest groups.

David Schultz, a Hamline University professor and an expert on ethics and disclosure laws, says most people probably don’t realize how far Minnesota has slipped in comparison to other states.

“When we start falling behind states like Alabama, it’s pretty embarrassing,” he says. “This [change in the Marty gift ban] just takes us backwards.”

Many legislators and other officials have long resented the Marty law, which prohibits them from accepting gifts of any value – including food and drink – from lobbyists or interest groups. It exempted only mementoes and trinkets costing less than $5, and food and drink from an organization when the recipient appears before it to speak or participate in a panel discussion.

Senjem offered amendment

Sen. Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, offered an amendment on the Senate floor to change the law, citing the frequent legislative complaint that it has prevented lawmakers from socializing and getting to know each other at lobbyist-funded receptions that once were nearly as frequent as floor sessions.

“From the day I got [to the Legislature], everybody complained about the Marty law from the standpoint of just this place has changed, we’re contentious, we don’t get along together, we’re not friends, we don’t know each other,” Senjem told the Rochester Post-Bulletin. (Senjem did not respond to a MinnPost request for comment.)

Effective DemocracyHowever, the Marty law ended some serious political misbehavior. Before its passage, some lobbyists picked up the dinner tab so frequently for the same legislators that they could have claimed these legislators as dependents. Many years ago, one legislator even was caught sleeping regularly in the hospitality suite maintained by a certain lobbyist.

Apparently most lawmakers believe they can’t socialize with one another unless someone else pays for it. This is true even though they draw generous per-diem expense payments – $86 a day for senators and $66 for House members – when the Legislature is in session.

Senjem’s amendment will allow lobbyists and interest groups to host lavish legislative receptions as long as they hold them away from the Capitol and they extend invitations to all legislators at least five days before the event. It places no limit on the amount groups can spend to entertain officials.

His little-noticed amendment was approved by the Senate on a 34-28 vote, with Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk of Cook and other leading DFLers supporting it.

The amendment was opposed by Marty, who says, “It’s not the end of the world, but it’s a step backwards.”  

“The better, well-funded organizations are going to be empowered by this law,” says Schultz. “It just enhances the power that the larger organizations already have.”

Disclosure rule changed

The bill, which was approved by both houses and signed into law by DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, also included a provision that increases from $100 to $200 the maximum contribution that can be accepted by political committees without disclosing the source.

This change was advocated by the Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board as a way of reducing the voluminous contribution disclosure reports that campaigns must file. But Schultz says it will enable lobbyists and interest groups to secretly funnel substantial amounts of money into the political war chests of legislators, legislative caucuses and the political parties.

Sen. Tom Bakk
MinnPost photo by James NordSen. Tom Bakk was criticized for proposing and voting on salary increases for Senate staff that included his wife, Laura, whose pay was boosted to $68,561 a year.

Gary Goldsmith, executive director of the bipartisan state campaign finance board, acknowledges that Minnesota’s ethics laws “are very weak. And that’s a statement I think our board agrees with.”

One of the bills the board offered for discussion during the 2013 session would have significantly strengthened these laws. The bill would:

  • Provide a clear definition of what constitutes a “conflict of interest” for a public official and broaden it beyond voting – to include using the official’s office or public resources in any matter in which the official “has a financial interest.”

  • Define a financial interest as any income or business investment totaling more than $2,500, or any real property valued at more than $5,000 (excluding the official’s residence and up to 40 acres of agricultural property).

  • Extend the law to include the financial interests of an official’s spouse and minor children, and those of a client or customer of an official who also is a sole proprietor of a business or an independent contractor.

  • Require officials to file a more detailed statement every year disclosing these financial interests, as well as to disclose any potential conflict of interest within 24 hours of when it becomes apparent.

  • Prohibit an official from taking any action “in a matter in which the official has a financial interest.”

The issue of potential conflicts of interest involving spouses of public officials arose several times earlier this year.

Lawmakers criticized

Sen. Bakk was criticized for proposing and voting on salary increases for Senate staff that included his wife, Laura, whose pay was boosted to $68,561 a year. And Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin was questioned for repeatedly voting on multi-million-dollar trash disposal contracts with a corporation employing a law firm where his wife works.

Several legislators also have been questioned about potential conflicts concerning their work as independent insurance agents and their involvement in health insurance issues.

Marty believes that the failure of current law to cover the financial interests of independent contractors is “a huge loophole. I’ve had bills on it for 12, 14, 16 years or more, but I’ve never gotten anywhere.”

Goldsmith calls the board’s ethics and disclosure bill “very strong” and says it generated “a lot of interest” last session, even though it didn’t receive a hearing. He hopes it will be starting point for legislation in 2014.

Effective Democracy is a year-long series of occasional reports supported by the Chicago-based Joyce Foundation, as part of a grant made to MinnPost and the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.

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Comments (14)

  1. Submitted by Mike Worcester on 07/23/2013 - 09:39 am.

    Unreal

    I find this to be unreal. After twenty years of a strict gift ban, which at least helped assure the citizens of this state that their elected officials were not susceptible to undue influence by corporations and organizations, we now have relaxed those rules? And for what? So they can get a free meal out of it?

    Note to legislators – I don’t get free meals. Why should you?

    Just wondering.

    Sincerely,
    A Curious Minnesotan

  2. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 07/23/2013 - 09:53 am.

    How in the heck am I supposed to corrupt the legislature…

    …if I can’t schmooze them with gifts !!??

  3. Submitted by David Frenkel on 07/23/2013 - 11:04 am.

    Lobbyists win again

    Clearly lobbying works and this is a clear example.

  4. Submitted by Richard Stokke on 07/23/2013 - 01:28 pm.

    Lobbyists give, Vets loose

    Seems so right to our legislators that they can take money from lobbyists, but yanked the meager $50 used to support the volunteers who play taps for those who died in service, or had served with honor. At the same time they utter, with hands somewhat near to heart: We value our veterans, until they kick off.

  5. Submitted by Steve Hoffman on 07/23/2013 - 02:17 pm.

    Betrayed

    I’m a Democrat and I’m horrified by this. What is WRONG with these people? Do they think nobody’s noticing?

  6. Submitted by David Frenkel on 07/23/2013 - 03:57 pm.

    Politics as usual

    There is safety in numbers regardless who is in power. When the capital is controlled by one party things can happen quickly. I hope people remember this come election time.

  7. Submitted by Arvonne Fraser on 07/23/2013 - 04:18 pm.

    I beg to differ

    Get real, folks. Politics is about discussion and discussion always goes better when it’s somewhat social, when people meet together, talk, discuss or even argue respectfully. We are at this horrible era of partisanship because legislators don’t know each other as human beings. We–the public–by not trusting politicians or elected officials and hampering them from getting together except as adversaries have created this awful era of partisanship.

    I agree that lobbyists should be able to buy or provide legislators with a drink and a bit of food. That is historically the means for legislators to (a) get information from those who have an interest in legislation; and (b) a way for legislators to get to know each other. This is not much different from organizations providing coffee, donuts, lunch or dinner to people they want to convince. Why shouldn’t the League of Women Voters, for example, or the Minnesota Women’s Consortium, or any organization or individual with a point of view be able to talk to legislators over a bit of food or drink about their views.

    This would be far better than allowing corporations and other well heeled to finance campaigns without disclosure.

    • Submitted by Tom Christensen on 07/24/2013 - 08:17 am.

      They get a daily per diem

      Let them fund their own coffee and donuts. Why even risk looking like there is corruption happening, even though it may not be. They are there to serve their constituents, not themselves.

    • Submitted by Mike Worcester on 07/24/2013 - 03:43 pm.

      Nobody is stopping them

      Nobody is stopping anyone from being social and discussing issues and topics and thoughts. Not at all. But to say that in order to do so requires groups and organizations the ability to throw lavish bashes in order to facilitate said socializing, that seems hard to believe.

      And yes, I like to “get real”. I live in the real world that exists outside the Capitol Hill media bubble. That real world sees its elected officials wined and dined by the well heeled and well connected while the rest of us are left with writing a letter or hoping we can get in a question at a town hall meeting – assuming we can attend if work or family matters don’t intercede.

      Considering that legislators, when base salary and per diem are combined make more that the median income of a large swath of Minnesotans, they can certainly pay their own way–like the rest of us do. Now that is being “real”.

      • Submitted by Steve Titterud on 07/24/2013 - 09:13 pm.

        A sure-fire way of getting an audience with a legislator…

        …, as opposed to writing a letter or hoping to pose a question at a town hall meeting, is to donate a sufficient amount to the campaign of the legislator.

        I don’t know what that sufficient amount might be today. It used to take not so much – maybe a couple grand. But in a campaign for a seat in the MN legislature today, I’m betting if you gave $10,000 for their re-election, that when you called their office and asked to speak to Rep. So-and-So, they’d get right on the line, VERY interested to hear your views. You know, you being a constituent and all.

    • Submitted by Richard O'Neil on 08/20/2013 - 03:28 pm.

      Get real, Arvonne!

      Really? This isn’t about a ” drink with a bit of food.” This is about keeping our elected officials “elected” as opposed to being bought.

  8. Submitted by J Ledesma on 07/23/2013 - 05:42 pm.

    None, (well, the Joyce Founadtion anyhow) dares call it lobbying

    At the top of the piece, it says: “This coverage is made possible by a grant from The Joyce Foundation.”

    The Joyce Foundation advocates on a number of issues, but barely skirts the lobbying rules itself. On their website, ( http://www.joycefdn.org/apply/advocacy-rules ) they even offer advice on what to say and not say when talking to legislators. This may cover their non-profit butts, but its laughable that they would then present themselves as keepers of public ethics by funding articles like this while funding groups who work the region’s statehouses.

  9. Submitted by Tom Christensen on 07/23/2013 - 10:34 pm.

    A Pox on both houses

    There is no need to make it easier than it already is to corrupt politicians. It is no wonder they are not trusted by anyone. If the Citizen United decision doesn’t provide enough ways to try to corrupt your politician, additional gifts won’t help. The politicians barely work productively at all. When they do they are working for the special few and not all citizens.

  10. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 07/24/2013 - 07:48 am.

    Yes, it’s annoying

    My inclination is to think that legislators, especially, and government employees in general, ought to be close to Puritanical in avoiding even the appearance of conflict of interest, but I’m in a very small minority. Minnesota law, even before these changes, appears to have been relatively lax in these matters, and the changes only take us away from whatever “full disclosure” is intended to mean.

    That said, money is “the mother’s milk” of politics, and it’s impossible to avoid politics in a functioning society, so, while this is a disappointing revelation, it’s neither surprising nor especially unusual. My experience has been that *every* organization or occupation tends to be self-serving when given the opportunity. Legislators are no different from bankers, police, architects, social workers, hedge fund managers and custodians in that regard. Journalists should not be excluded, either…

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