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Nobody can explain why a meeting of the entire Minnesota Legislature is closed to the public

One Minnesota Legislative Policy Conference
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
On Wednesday, all members of the House and Senate will meet at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs for an all-day gathering called the “One Minnesota Legislative Policy Conference.”

There are only a few occasions when all 201 members of the Minnesota Legislature — the 67 state senators and 134 members of the House of Representatives — meet together: One is to hear the governor’s State of the State address; the other is when they vote jointly to elect members to the University of Minnesota Board of Regents.

This year, there’s a third time. On Wednesday, all members of the House and Senate are meeting at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs for an all-day gathering called the “One Minnesota Legislative Policy Conference.” Yet there is one crucial difference between the first two get-togethers and Wednesday’s meeting. The former are open to the public and the media; the “One Minnesota” conference is not. 

Normally, the only closed meetings of the Legislature are the party caucuses: the discussion and strategy sessions reserved to members of each party in each chamber. But committee meetings and floor sessions are all required to be open. 

So why is the “One Minnesota” different? 

The first reason given by legislative leaders Tuesday for making the meeting closed-door was tradition, when not deferring about who was responsible for the decision.

“That’s the first time I’ve ever been asked that,” said Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, when asked about why the public and members of the media weren’t allowed. “I’ve never thought about why you’re not welcome.”

House Speaker Melissa Hortman
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
House Speaker Melissa Hortman
“That is a really good question,” said House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park. “I kinda wish you would be able to be there because it is a good day to get back to the basics.” 

She said the program includes talks about the budget and a demography refresher. But Hortman said the decision to keep private a gathering of every state lawmaker was “not my call to make.” 

So whose call is it? 

Hortman said it is put on by the University of Minnesota and the legislative caucuses, saying she has been a “spokesperson” to advocate bringing news media into the room but that “I don’t get a super vote.”

Although the meeting is located at the University of Minnesota, professor Lawrence Jacobs, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the Humphrey School and the school’s Department of Political Science, said via a spokesperson that the school has nothing to do with the program — or the ground rules.

“One Minnesota is entirely directed by the Legislature, with the space privately contracted,” Jacobs said. “The Humphrey School and university have no influence on the agenda or any events during the day. It is a private event.”

The leaders of the minority caucuses of the Legislature also said they didn’t know why the conference is closed. Or even that it was closed.

“I actually don’t have a concrete answer for that,” said Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent, DFL-Woodbury. “I can speculate that it’s an opportunity for us to have some conversations and learn some things in a forum. It’s a lot of information sharing. It’s nothing spectacular. We don’t come up with policies as a result of it. It’s not like we’re making decisions. We’re coming together to learn a few things, to hear each other and create some of that unity.”

“I guess I didn’t realize it even was closed, but I guess I don’t know why it is,” said House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown. 

What’s on the agenda for the closed-door session? A briefing by the state economist and demographer on “Minnesota’s economic and demographic realities”; a briefing by House and Senate staff on redistricting; a tutorial on “negotiation skills and tools” and workshops on “end-of-session redesign.” The gathering is being funded by grants from the Blandin Foundation and the McKnight Foundation.

One Minnesota Legislative Policy Conference
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
The first reason given by legislative leaders Tuesday for making the meeting closed-door was tradition, when not deferring about who was responsible for the decision.
Even if they didn’t take responsibility for closing the meeting to the public, each of the leaders defended the setup with some variation of the claim that it allows members of the Legislature to be more open with one another.

“I pretty much say the same thing everywhere. I don’t really change my message much,” said Gazelka. “But other people, they’re maybe not as open about what they think about things. But as I think about it, it would simply be that this is where you could actually be vulnerable and actually try to talk about can we do the process better.”

Said Kent: “It’s a time for legislators of both parties, from both bodies, to come together. We don’t have many of those opportunities. It is an opportunity for us to create some of that unity that I know Minnesotans want us to exhibit on a more regular basis.”

“It is members learning together, and that is us at our best,” said Hortman. “We think there is value in Democrats and Republicans learning together and not just sparing on our solutions, but becoming more well-rounded on the issues and the problems facing Minnesota.”

“It’s a good opportunity for us to go and talk with each other,” said Daudt. “We’re going to talk about how do we improve the process and make sure things like last session don’t happen again.”

One of the criticisms of the 2019 legislative session was about the level of secrecy during end-of-session negotiations. Gov. Tim Walz, Hortman and Gazelka did much of the budget negotiations alone and in private. They also functioned as a review panel of sorts, making final decisions on any disputes that could not be hammered out by committee chairs. The leadership panel and the committee chairs negotiations were done in private, as well.

At a pre-session forum last week involving the four top legislative leaders and Walz, Hortman was asked about the lack of openness with the end-of-session deal-making. She thinks the process was better than during previous sessions under GOP leadership, but added, “We’re still sausage makers working in a sausage factory, and there’s definitely more room for improvement.”

But House Deputy Minority Leader Anne Neu objected to Hortman making any claims of improvement.

House Deputy Minority Leader Anne Neu
House Deputy Minority Leader Anne Neu
“The reality is it was not an open and transparent process,” the North Branch Republican said. Even most of the Legislature was locked out, she said.

And so, on the second day of the current session, legislators are going to talk about end-of-session dynamics, including transparency, in closed sessions. 

“I think everyone can agree the process hasn’t worked very well for a number of decades,” Gazelka said. “It’s an opportunity where both sides can get together, hopefully in a neutral setting. We’re going to talk about how do we make the process work better, which I think is really, really important.”

Tuesday, Gazelka said one highlight of the conference is a tutorial on effective negotiations by an expert from the National Council of State Legislatures, “so chairs and (bill) authors of bills can actually talk about doing that better.”

Kent, who recently won a leadership challenge to longtime DFL Senate leader Tom Bakk, said the end of last session was a little difficult and not transparent, “and if we can come up with some solutions to help with that, I think it would be a healthy thing to do.”

According to the Minnesota Legislative Research Library, the One Minnesota Conference has been held annually since 2007, with the single exception of 2018. It appears to have grown out of the Minnesota Horizons conference that was held eight times between 1975 and 2003 at varying locations in the Twin Cities. 

But Horizons was different from the One Minnesota conference in one way: It was broadcast on public radio and videotaped for rebroadcast on public television stations.

Comments (12)

  1. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 02/12/2020 - 12:25 pm.

    Notwithstanding the Minnesota Open Meeting Law, the default rule in Minnesota is that a “meeting” is closed unless there’s a law or rule which makes it “open to the public.” The Minnesota Open Meeting Law only applies to the “executive branch” of the State government and local government. Meetings of the House and Senate are governed by their rules. This event is not covered so therefore it’s not open.

    I’m sure there are other meetings or conferences that are also “closed to the public” that would not bear scrutiny. Redistricting is one, where a few legislators meet and draw the legislative and Congressional district boundaries every ten years and then submit it for a vote. If the Minnesota legislature does not enact some form of redistricting reform this session, we’ll see the legislative and Congressional districts carved up again in secret to preserve party balance or promote party power.

    I’d contrast Minnesota Open Meeting Law with the Wisconsin Open Meeting Law which expressly provides that meetings of the Senate and House are subject to it with certain defined exceptions. Even the Wisconsin Supreme Court follows this policy for their rulemaking activities. (They have resisted so far making their deliberations open to the public.)

    All State government has a way to go to make its operations transparent and accountable. It’s disappointing that none of those legislative leaders interviewed had any clue or explanation why they are conducting this essentially secret meeting.

  2. Submitted by Bob Barnes on 02/12/2020 - 12:57 pm.

    Open the doors and let the public hear. Politicians meeting in secret is never good for the public. They won’t resolve anything anyway since the 2 parties are diametrically opposed on most every topic.

  3. Submitted by Alan Muller on 02/12/2020 - 01:18 pm.

    Thanks for reporting on thisl

    What a mockery of the Open Meetings Law (the Leg has exempted itself) and other notions of open government.

    It has long seemed obvious to me that the primary relationships of “our” legislators are generally with each other, with lobbyists, and the state bureaucracy. Constituents are far down the totem pole. But we don’t get any more democracy than we insist on, and it’s long past time Minnesotans stop swallowing the excuses and start insisting.

    And shame on the Blandin Foundation and the McKnight Foundation, who *say* they stand for better……

  4. Submitted by Don Casey on 02/12/2020 - 01:25 pm.


    And MinnPost is the only media I can find reporting on it. Did any media outlet seek legal counsel? Was there potential for an injunction that might block it? (Regrettably, these days there are fewer media outlets large enough to have adequate resources to challenge political abuses.)

    How is this session different from “retreats” by various city councils and school boards? Those are subject to open meeting laws. Many once made the “just gathering information, not making decisions” argument for holding private meetings. The courts disagreed.

    The Minnesota Legislature has progressively increased closed door activity in recent years. This adds insult to the injury already inflicted on openness in Minnesota state government.

  5. Submitted by David Markle on 02/12/2020 - 01:43 pm.

    This article reminds us of our ongoing governmental transparency problem. In this case, the fact that the meeting was apparently organized by the Humphrey shouldn’t exempt it from oversight. As a matter of fact, I walked through the Humphrey atrium at around noon, and thought I’d like to have free lunch, too (although I didn’t barge in).

    A related problem that I cited here a few days ago is that governmental Requests for Proposals aren’t available to the public until the development contract has been signed. What a travesty!

  6. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 02/12/2020 - 01:59 pm.

    Solid article, Mr. Callaghan! What a shame this secrecy is.

  7. Submitted by Sean Olsen on 02/12/2020 - 04:31 pm.

    Having it be privately funded is the chef’s kiss emoji to finish it off.

  8. Submitted by Andrew Kearney on 02/12/2020 - 09:28 pm.

    I am sympathetic to the terrible treatment the press is receiving these days-everything from the murder of reporters to the president’s constant baiting. And I am glad that there is more ‘openess’ in meetings. That said I think this constant over-vigilance the press has with the ‘openess’ of meetings is self serving and not in the public interest. Elected officials are human beings and deserve some (very, very limited) time to interact with each other outside the glare of the recorder and camera. The public is fed up with partisan bickering but we have taken away the normal human social experiences of “getting to know you” with the limits on elected leaders being able to go to a hosted dinner or reception and then the press’ belief that no conversation should occur without one of them being present.

  9. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 02/13/2020 - 08:16 am.

    Jon Kingstad’s final paragraph seems a pretty good summary. All the quotes from various legislative leaders add up to: “I have no answer for that awkward question you just asked.” It wouldn’t take much to amend the state’s “open meetings” law to include sessions like this one, but I won’t hold my breath waiting for it to happen.

    Well done, Peter. Nothing in the ‘Strib on this, and of course, local TV can’t be bothered, since there are no flashing lights or dead bodies.

  10. Submitted by John Augustine on 02/13/2020 - 05:33 pm.

    Reporter Callaghan is right to be asking this question. I’m sure
    that other Minnesotans have some ideas for “end-of-session redesign” to improve upon current practices, but they don’t get to sequester the entire legislature in private to lobby for them. It is naive to think that McKnight and other foundations don’t have particular interests and policy agendas to promote, agendas that may not be universally viewed as being in the general public interest.

  11. Submitted by john herbert on 02/14/2020 - 07:59 am.

    Interesting article Peter, thanks for covering this. As someone who as a kid watched the Watergate Hearings, the reformer in me wants to be outraged by the secrecy and lame answers given by our legislative leaders. However, maybe it is a good idea for legislators to have a combined meeting where folks are somewhat free to tell the truth rather than spouting the party line espoused by those on either wing. For instance, perhaps a Republican could note that maybe some gun control measure is a good idea or a Dem ponder not raising taxes as an initial resort – image what would happen when the press reported such, the 10-15% or so on either wing who seem to control each party would freak out! I sure wish the 70-80% in the middle would govern, oh well, can’t blame nobody but ourselves for that. Cheers.

  12. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 02/24/2020 - 08:48 am.

    So, legislators have to attend a privately sponsored event in a rented space to learn how to do what their supposed to do at the Capital?

    Not only is this a waste of legislative time but it’s a just another example of facile corporate practice infiltrating our democratic processes. For decades now it’s been a corporate fad to hire “consultants” that come in to teach executives how to the jobs they get paid to do, everyone else is just expected to do the jobs they get paid to do or go home. Whatever. Every single one of these politicians ran on a platform of knowing how to do this job better than someone else, and the promise that they’d do it better on behalf of their constituents. Now we learn they need a special private session for someone to explain the budget, and now to have good meetings?

    I’ll bet anyone $5 right now that the next legislative session will be no more “productive” than the last despite this private session.

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