Rep. Jim Davnie just started his new job as executive director of SciMathMN, an advocacy organization that promotes science, technology, engineering and mathematics education.
According to its website:
“SciMathMN is Minnesota’s statewide coalition for standards-based systemic improvements in K-12 science and mathematics education. The coalition came into official existence in 1993 with its incorporation as an IRS-approved nonprofit educational entity and with significant annual funding from the State of Minnesota. As a coalition, SciMathMN represents a variety of organizations and individuals, and it has functioned much like the statewide systemic initiatives that flourished in other states under National Science Foundation support in the early to mid-1990s. SciMathMN is led by a board of directors whose composition reflects the basis of the coalition—education, business and policy representatives. In 2002 SciMathMN moved into a new phase, having lost its state funding and resulting staff support but newly energized by volunteer involvement and emerging strategic partnerships.”
It seems that two of SciMathMN’s primary strategic objectives would be to lobby the State Board of Education and the legislature on improving the standards for teaching science and math and to lobby the legislature to restore funding so they could rehire staff.
It’s perfectly legal for a state legislator to also be a lobbyist, because it’s the state legislature that writes the laws determining what’s legal. On Feb. 6, 2015, George Beck, chair of the Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board, issued an opinion to State Senator David Tomassoni regarding a potential conflict of interest. Tomassoni had just taken a job as executive director of the Range Association of Municipalities and Schools. Clearly, Tomassoni’s job was to get state money to members of his association, but Beck ruled:
“To determine if there is a conflict of interest a public official must consider two criteria, both of which are established by Minnesota Statutes section 10A.07. First, will the official action substantially benefit either the public official’s personal financial interests or the financial interests of an associated business? If the answer is yes then the second criteria is whether the benefit will be greater for the public official or the official’s associated business than the effect on other members of the same business classification, profession or occupation. Only when both conditions are true does the public official face a conflict of interest.
“Under the statute a legislator who finds that an action will create a conflict of interest must prepare a written statement describing the matter requiring the official’s action or decision and the conflict of interest and deliver the notice to the presiding officer of the legislative body in which the official serves. If there is not time for a written statement, the legislator should orally inform the legislative body of the potential conflict. A legislator may be excused from taking part in an action or decision that creates a conflict of interest.”
So, Tomassoni can write legislation that benefits his association, introduce it in the legislature, shepherd it through committee hearings and even vote on its final passage if the legislation also benefits other municipalities and schools in the same class. And, if the legislation only benefits members of his association, then Tomassoni is required to write a note to the Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board informing them of the conflict of interest.
The Minnesota State Legislature, in its infinite wisdom, sees no conflict of interest in one hand sworn to protect the cookie jar and another hand reaching in to get some cookies for some friends.