The announcement Tuesday by Sen. Dick Day, R-Owatonna, that he’s leaving his seat to become president of a non-profit called Racino Now underscores again how far removed Minnesota is from its clean-government image.
Not only are there no restrictions slowing down a legislator from stepping from public office to private lobbyist, there is no way for any of us to know whether our august leaders are being paid as “consultants” by entities who have interest in legislative matters.
None of this is to suggest that the colorful Day is doing anything illegal or that he’s been a paid consultant for the horse racing/gaming industry.
Day says he’s never received any consulting money from racino interests. And in a phone conversation this morning said he will not receive pay from his new job until he’s officially finished with his job as a senator next month.
Day long has openly pushed for the Legislature to allow horse-racing tracks to operate full casinos, in direct competition with the Native American casinos which have flourished near the metro area.
At his announcement, Day, former minority leader of the Senate, still was urging the Legislature to move on racino, saying that it would generate $250 million each biennium for the cash-starved state. He also said that he’s received assurances from Gov. Tim Pawlenty that Pawlenty would sign the legislation if it comes to his desk.
The windfall, Day pointed out, could be the easy answer to solving the dilemma of finding funding for a new Vikings’ stadium — or the funds could be used for any number of other purposes. In his new post, he said, he will begin campaigning across the state for people to put the heat on legislators to support racino.
The DFL was quick to jump on this, especially the conversations Day said he’s had with the governor.
“Minnesota is facing a historic budget deficit and struggling to deal with cash-flow problems that result directly from the governor’s misguided policies,” said DFL Chairman Brian Melendez in a statement. “In tough fiscal times like these, why is the governor making promises to lobbyists that will have significant financial consequences?”
Response from governor’s office
Pawlenty is on a trade mission in South America, but his spokesman Brian McClung suggested that Day’s comments leaned to hyperbole.
“Governor Pawlenty has stated many times publicly and privately there isn’t enough legislative support to pass gaming legislation and it’s also not a road he’s interested in going down again,” McClung said in an e-mail response to questions about whether the governor had conversations with Day about racino.
But racino, stadiums and conversations with the governor are only small parts of a bigger story.
Minnesota once was known for clean, transparent politics. But in the last 20 years, it’s fallen behind the pack.
For example, more than 20 states have revolving-door restrictions that would have prevented the sort of move Day announced for at least a year.
Beyond that, many states have laws that require lobbyists to show which legislators they’ve been talking to behind closed doors and what transpired at those meetings. In Minnesota, lobbyists have no such requirement.
Most remarkably, Minnesota legislators are required to disclose if they are employed by a business or if they have significant amounts of stock in companies. But legislators are not required to disclose if they are acting as “paid” consultants for clients doing legislative business.
“Our campaign finance laws are like Swiss cheese, full of holes,” said Hamline ethics professor David Schultz. “Our lobbyist disclosure laws and legislative disclosures are terrible. The Center for Public Integrity ranks Minnesota with a failing grades for disclosure and transparency.”
Schulz believes that legislators got their noses so out of joint when Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, pushed through stringent gift bans more than a decade ago that they said “no more.”
This, by the way, is not a partisan issue. When he was head of an organization called Common Cause in 1999, Schulz said that then House Speaker Steve Sviggum, a Republican, supported a bill that would have at least slowed down the revolving door. But efforts to put some restrictions on movement from a representative of the people to a lobbyist for private interests was blocked by the DFL Senate.
Not surprisingly, Marty, a longtime cheerleader for shedding light on legislative practices and now a candidate for governor, is using Day’s move to again try to inspire his peers to tighten up ethics rules.
Along with House member Karla Bigham, DFL-Cottage Grove, Marty says he will introduce revolving-door legislation that would require legislators who retire or lose election to wait two years before they could accept a lobbying position.
In fact, Marty would like to see an even tougher ban — as in lifetime.
“People [other legislators] tell me that’s unfair,” said Marty. “They say, ‘What would I do if I didn’t have this seat?’ My response to that is that there are 1,500 lobbyists in the state and 2.5 million jobs. Surely, they can find something.”
But again, the revolving door is just the tip of the iceberg. The simple fact is that in Minnesota we don’t know what our legislators are up to.
How bad is it?
“Even the U.S. Congress has better disclosure laws,” said Schulz. “That means we’re in really awful shape.”
The argument that Marty and other open government types hear from legislators is that they are insulted by the insinuation that they can bought by private interests.
“I trust my colleagues,” said Marty, “but the fact is, we’re dealing with billions of dollars of public money. We shouldn’t make those kinds of decisions with these kinds of conflict possibly existing in the background.”
Again, the Day case is instructive. Racino is not a small-change operation. If racino operations at Canterbury Downs and the race track for trotting horses in Anoka County actually could generate $250 million every two years for the state, those operations would generate at least as many millions for the private interests operating the tracks.
Combine those huge numbers with the huge numbers swirling around efforts by the Vikings to get public money for a stadium, and you’re talking serious dollars at play.
Isn’t it possible that with that kind of money at stake, some dollars won’t end up in the campaigns of various legislators or even in the pockets of legislators who could be hired as consultants?
Marty likes to use a sports analogy to point out the potential conflicts involved.
“People say, ‘I can’t be bought,”’ Marty said. “But let’s talk football. Let’s say the coach of the Cardinals gave each of the refs $500 before the game with the Vikings. He’d say, ‘I’m not trying to buy influence. I just wanted to give these guys something because they work hard and they don’t get paid enough. I don’t expect anything in return.’ The league would rightfully say, ‘You can’t do that.”’
More expansive role
In the Minnesota Legislature?
Because of the Marty-led gift ban, a lobbyist can’t buy a legislator a cup of coffee and a doughnut. But a lobbyist can contribute to a legislator’s campaign fund and a lobbyist can even hire a legislator as a paid consultant. And, of course, a company can hire a legislator as a lobbyist, no cooling off period required.
It could be argued, in Day’s case, that he will have less influence as a lobbyist outside the Legislature than he had as a state senator working to get a racino bill passed.
Even Day says that’s partially true, though he sees himself being more expansive in his new job. He said after making information-gathering trips to Iowa and Oklahoma, where there are racino operations, he’ll be crisscrossing the state trying to drum up public support for racino. Additionally, he’ll be more direct in conversations with his former colleagues in the Legislature in his new role than he had as a senator.
“I only spoke on the floor of the Senate [about racino],” he said. “I don’t think I ever went into the offices of a DFL senator to talk about it.”
Said Schulz: “In the minority he has very little power in the Senate. Now, he’s probably making three times that and he’s pushing the same issue, except now he’s doing it full time.”
And he’ll have years of legislative friendships and knowledge to support his efforts.
Day bristles at the notion that he should become some sort of a poster pol for tighter ethics laws in Minnesota.
“Those so-called clean government people, mainly John Marty, have ruined camaraderie in the Legislature,” Day said. “We never sit down together for a beer or a steak dinner anymore. We’re afraid somebody’s going to say, ‘What are those guys cooking up?’ Ethics. I tell you what, the group of people I work with are the most ethical group of people I know.”
Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.