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Elephants in the room? Bill language would ban private clubs for lawmakers, lobbyists proposed by GOP campaign committee

The bill, which now has GOP support, came in response to a mysterious request made to the state Campaign Finance Board in September about charging membership dues for a club that would provide access to Capitol decision-makers.

Minnesota Senate
A sentence in Senate File 3975 would ban contributions to any club set up by a political committee of a candidate or a political caucus of the Legislature that provides access to lawmakers.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

A Minnesota Senate bill would close the door to an exclusive political club that never actually opened.

One sentence in the omnibus bill, Senate File 3975, would ban contributions to any club set up by a political committee of a candidate or a political caucus of the Legislature that provides access to lawmakers.

State law already prohibits contributions to lawmakers during legislative sessions. But a mysterious request made to the Minnesota Campaign Finance Board in September suggested a loophole around that ban: charging membership dues to a club that provides access to Capitol decision-makers.

The request came from a source that asked not to be identified, other than to say that it was from a political party unit registered with the board. What if that party organization rented space near the capitol during session as a gathering space for its members to “be used, in part, to support the development of legislation that supports the party’s political agenda,” read the finance board staff summary of the issue. “Passage of legislation and development of policies that are in line with the party’s goals will directly support the election of party candidates.”

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The public would not be allowed inside such a meeting room or club. But the party organization could offer what were termed “limited memberships” to others. “The cost of a limited membership may be greater than the membership fee for elected members of the party unit,” the request for advice stated.

While that looked and felt like a way to accept money from, say, lobbyists, before session  and a way to give those lobbyists special and private access to lawmakers during session, it wasn’t a violation of current campaign finance laws, stated the advisory opinion signed by Campaign Finance Board Chair Stephen Swanson.  

Yes, the dues paid by lobbyists or others would be considered a campaign contribution that would have to be reported via the board’s campaign finance reporting. But if the cash arrived before the session contribution blackout period began, it wouldn’t be illegal.

“Although access to the meeting facility will be provided during a regular legislative session, the contribution occurs when payment of the membership dues is physically received by the party unit, or if the party unit accepts payment of membership dues through electronic means, on the date when the lobbyist makes the contribution,” Swanson wrote. 

But the state government omnibus bill  — a collection of much of the Senate State Government committee’s work of the 2022 session — now contains this language: “A lobbyist, political committee, or political fund must not make a contribution at any time for membership in, or access to, a facility during a regular legislative session if the facility is operated by the principal campaign committee of a candidate for the legislature or constitutional office, or by a political party organization within a house of the legislature.”

State Sen. Lindsey Port
State Sen. Lindsey Port
That language closely follows provisions in bills introduced by Sen. Lindsey Port, DFL-Burnsville, and Rep. Ginny Klevorn, DFL-Plymouth, in response to news coverage about the advisory opinion. The anonymous request was apparently made by the Senate Victory Fund, the campaign arm of the Senate Republican caucus. Senate Majority Leader Jeremy Miller, R-Winona, has said there were no plans for such a club but none of the bill sponsors are Republicans.

“Voters across the country already believe that individuals with money have more access to legislators,” Port told the state government committee. “This bill seeks to close a loophole that makes that true.” Supporting the bill were leaders from Clean Elections Minnesota and Common Cause.

State Sen. Jeff Howe
At a hearing last week, many GOP committee members pushed back against the bill. Sen. Jeff Howe, R-Rockville, said he would be meeting that weekend with a constituent who has contributed to his campaigns in the past. The meeting would take place in a private room at a restaurant. 

“How do I not end up getting charged with violating campaign finance rules?” Howe asked.

Port tried to explain that the bill language only applies to lobbyists and political action committees — and only if those people make a contribution after an agreement that it would provide special or exclusive access.

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“I find that interesting,” said Committee Chair Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake. “Now we’re talking about in-district constituent meetings. When I think of the chilling effect this could have on meetings with constituents it gives me great concern.”

State Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer
State Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer
Jeff Sigurdson, the executive director of the campaign finance board, said the bill would not implicate meetings with constituents.

“The contribution that you received from  your constituent would only come into play if your constituent was also a lobbyist,” Sigurdson said. “So a contribution from an individual wouldn’t meet the first test.” Then, it would have to be a trade of special access in exchange for the contribution.

“It would have to be ‘I’m giving you this contribution and in exchange for that you agree to meet with me in a private location during the regular legislative session,” Sigurdson said. 

Despite her skepticism, Kiffmeyer did include the language in her committee bill, and Port said it meets the intent of her original bill.