In email to constituent, Senate Majority Leader bemoans lack of corporate power at MN capitol

It's the Feast of Fools, but a February email exchange just posted on a southern Minnesota DFL elist yesterday (and reposted here with permission) is no joke.

Senate Majority Leader Dave Senjem's response to a constituent concerned about ALEC's influence in Minnesota paints a picture of a Republican caucus under seige by unions and lobbyists from tribal gaming concerns, while business people are restricted to contributing mere personal checks to their defenders in the MNGOP.

First the exchange, then a look at the reality of corporate, union and tribal gaming influence at the Minnesota state capitol. Perhaps the personable Senjem was merely tired when he sent his response early in the morning of February 21:

From: "Sen.David Senjem"
Date: February 21, 2012 12:53:09 AM CST
To: sen [dot] carla [dot] nelson [at] senate [dot] mn, rep [dot] mike [dot] benson [at] house [dot] mn, [redacted] Sen [dot] David [dot] Senjem [at] senate [dot] mn
Subject: RE: ALEC outed, vetoed in Minnesota - Occupy Rochester targets corporate influence on election
Reply-To: Sen [dot] David [dot] Senjem [at] senate [dot] mn

Thanks [redacted]......Senator Ortman authored 3 out of the 4 tort reform bills. I have not visited with her but there was never mention of these bills having an outside origin. Senator Ortman is an extremely able legislator and lawyer and my instincts are that she would not have needed a lot of help putting these bills together.

[redacted], did you read our Campaign Finance Rules as I suggested you should? If you did you would have quickly come to know that all donations to campaigns must be personal checks, nothing corporate. This is true of caucus money too except that tribes and unions have no limit on what they can and do give to the DFL caucuses. On our side, we cannot take bundled money and, of course, don't.

The tribes current have 57 lobbiests hired to work the State Capitol to prevent gaming expansion so part of what. you suggest in terms of the undue influence of lobbiests is true.


[Message delivered by NotifyLink]

----------Original Message----------

From: [redacted] Sent: Mon, February 20, 2012 11:47 PM To: David Senjem , Carla Nelson , Mike Benson Subject: ALEC outed, vetoed in Minnesota - Occupy Rochester targets corporate influence on election

Dear Senators and Representative,

With the help of Governor Dayton, Dr, Rich Van Dellen and other concerned citizens, the cat is out of the bag and voters will be well informed about ALEC long before the November elections.

"The name "ALEC" was known by just a few people as recently as a few months ago. Now it's surfacing in the news -- it's about time! -- and in a speech by Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton. Dayton vetoed four "tort reform" bills, saying they came straight out of an ALEC boot camp manual."


Rochester, MN

The constituent provides URLs to support her claims--such as they are--but Senjem, author of the racino bill in the Senate, seems to have simply written off the top of his head.

Exercising due diligence with a vengence, Senjem claims that he hasn't discussed Ortman's legislation with her, a rather surprising claim given that the four bills made it on the senate floor and passage in the House before meeting with Dayton's veto pen.

Too bad that Senjem apparently is too old school to know that Google Is His Friend. He might have found Common Cause Minnesota's side-by-side comparison of parts of Ortman's legislation with ALEC model bills. Nonetheless, the Rochester Republican knows in some arcane fashion, without talking to her about the bills, that his colleague's work is totally original. It's a miracle!

And unlike traditional lobbyists or unions (which are heavily regulated by reporting requirements administered by the U.S. Department of Labor, the FEC and the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board), ALEC and its corporate funders are not required to disclose a dime of spending.

And corporate influence? In the world described in Senjem's email, it simply can't happen for his caucus, while unions and those lobbying for tribal gaming interests exercise undue influence, while only giving to Democratic legislators.

This worldview runs counter to recent reports about influence at the Minnesota state capitol and contributions to legislative campaign committee coffers. Three weeks after Senjem complained about unions and tribal gaming interests, Star Tribune political reporter Rachel Stassen-Berger's review, Business groups spent $14 million lobbying Minn. legislators, reported:

Business interests spent more than $14 million lobbying at the state Capitol last year, nearly a fourth of the lobbyist cash that flowed through St. Paul in 2011, according to new campaign finance reports.

Those reports show that lobbyists spent almost $60 million defending their interests, with a public utility -- Xcel Energy -- at the top of the list, followed by the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and the Minnesota Business Partnership.

Union groups and others who supported a failed quest to raise taxes on the wealthy last year were a distant second, clocking in at about $2.5 million.

Moreover, Senjem's view of tribal gaming influence seems quaint. In January, the Strib's Tony Kennedy reported in $15 billion stakes ride on epic gambling fight:

Long close to the DFL Party, the powerful lobby has been courting allies among Republicans and lacing those friendships with tribal PAC donations. When 2011 campaign finance disclosures are filed in the next several weeks, for example, they will reveal a fresh flow of cash to GOP organizations, said John McCarthy, president of the Minnesota Indian Gaming Association (MIGA).

"It's a little bit of a new day," McCarthy said. "It's not so much that we won't support the Democrats, but there is also now room to support the other side to some degree."

Capitol insiders see other telling changes. In November, the prominent GOP aide Cullen Sheehan was hired by Lockridge Grindal Nauen, the Minneapolis law and lobbying firm that has long represented the state's Indian gambling industry. Sheehan was chief of staff to the Minnesota Senate Republican caucus and, before that, a campaign manager for Republican U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman. . . .

Intrigue also has surrounded the Republican-led, Indian-supported Citizens Against Gambling Expansion (CAGE). It's a nonprofit with an operating budget of more than $115,000 a year. Tribal leaders support CAGE, but McCarthy said he doesn't know how much money they have given.

The group is led by influential Republican operative Jack Meeks and, until last year, counted Tony Sutton, the former Republican Party chairman, as a member of its board.

Tribal leaders say that while they work the Legislature aggressively, they abide by the same rules as every other constituency at the Capitol. . . .

Perhaps Sheehan, Meeks and Sutton are all strangers to Senjem.

Strictly speaking, corporations aren't giving money to the Senate Victory Fund, the campaign committee for the Republican Caucus in the Senate, but in 2011, plenty of business and business association PACs contributed to the fund--and those of some unions and tribal governments (which, like corporations, can't give directly to candidates' and caucuses' campaign committees under Minnesota law, however confused Senjem may have been about the universality of the rules that early February morning). Unions and corporations (think about the Target and Emmer uproar for a moment) can spend what they wish on independent expenditures, though both sides must disclose.

The Carpenters, Education Minnesota, and other unions gave money to the fund, for which retiring Geoff Michel serves as treasurer. After spending a couple of hundred grand in 2011, the Senate Victory Fund had $692,968.34 cash on hand on January 1, not all of it from personal checks written by Senjem's oppressed corporate executives.

A sharper picture of Senjem's caucus's ties to one slice of corporate money emerge in a report issued by TakeAction Minnesota in February, looking at the way in which Big Banks funneled money into the Senate Victory Fund and the HRCC, the SVF's companion war chest in the Minnesota House. (Bluestem disgrees with TAMN's linking of the corporate spending with the photo ID amendment. More on this in a bit*).

In Senjem's mind, the Senate Majority caucus and the corporate interests it champions may be powerless, and ALEC the legislative equivalent of that seldom-used gym membership, but that hardly seems likely as reports of ALEC's national influence--and the copycat bills it spawns--continue to emerge. Just today, a New Jersey newspaper chain reports that Some of Christie's biggest bills match model legislation from D.C. group called ALEC.

But Senjem's peculiar framing to a constituent obscures a more pressing issue: if the Senate Majority leader is so concerned about his preceptions of undue influence on the part of unions and tribal gaming concerns, where are the bills that would reform lobbying or campaign finance in Minnesota? 

The so-called "employee freedom" amendment is more of an "employer freedom" bill that would erode workplace rights--though at moments, its sponsors and talk about it as a means to deplete union treasuries as well. It's a unilateral attack on the worker's power in the marketplace and legislature. Were Senjem earnest, he'd be pushing bills that level the playing field at the capitol, in a state that just got a D+ for potential corruptibility from the State Intregity Project.

Bluestem has noted an amendment from Senator Dibble and a bill sponsored by Representative Kahn  requiring organizations offering "model bills" to conform to lobbying reporting requirments--a common sense approach. Where are those Republican bills that would apply equally to all players who hope to influence legislation?

Common Cause Minnesota and Sarah Janecek have raised questions about "public affairs" firms that mount "grassroots" support or opposition for issues. Where are the Republican bills to require transparency for those organizations?

*Note: Bluestem sees little evidence that the Big Banks and other corporations' CEO, PAC  and independent expenditures sought to push through photoID requirements specifically when they bankrolled the GOP takeover of the Minnesota legislature. Rather, Bluestem believes that they sought to finance a Republican governor, Tom Emmer, and the takeover in the state legislature in order to achieve regulatory and tax changes, and that executive management of these organizations fail to see the voting rights of the poor, students and people of color, or the essential dignity of LGBT people, as any importance at all.

In short, caring not one whit about the rights or dignity of ordinary people, they are willing to hand over the government to those politicians who share their fiscal policy positions, without concern for social issues or human rights.  Indifference to humanity, rather than a conspiracy against it, marks their choices--and this indifference may be far more damaging for our civic culture.

Photo: Minnesota Senate Majority Leader Dave Senjem, Pitier in Chief for Oppressed Corporations.

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Sally Jo Sorensen's picture
Sally Jo Sorensen

Sally Jo Sorensen publishes Bluestem Prairie for those who prefer take their corn with a progressive chaser.