Opening the doors to government


Government “of the people” is not very evident when the public is locked out of the political process or when the laws do not disclose information that voters need to understand conflicts of interest.

Unfortunately, Minnesota is not a leader in terms of transparent and accessible government. The non-partisan Center for Public Integrity gave Minnesota an “F” in its most recent report card on financial disclosure. As for open meetings, remember the “cone of silence,” the humorous term MN House Speaker Kurt Zellers gave to last summer’s closed door budget negotiations between legislators and the governor?

This lack of openness is so routine that the public, news reporters, and most legislators accept it as a given, even if they believe it’s wrong. Since the budget that resulted from negotiations conducted under the “cone of silence” was a such a disaster, it’s clear that the lack of openness doesn’t produce better results.

Throughout much of Minnesota history, politics at the state capitol happened behind closed doors. Lawmakers discussed and amended legislation in committee meetings that included only legislators, staff, and often a few lobbyists. Much of the legislative process was conducted outside of public view.

Then, in the early 1970s, things changed. The DFL party campaigned on the idea of opening the doors to government. Candidates promised to “let the sun shine in” on meetings at the capitol. DFLers won control of the legislature, and to their credit, they kept their promise. New sunshine rules were adopted. For the first time, the public was allowed in during every step of the lawmaking process. And Minnesota passed some of the best campaign finance reforms and public disclosure laws in the nation.

People across the country began to realize that their government ought to be open to them. Other states followed Minnesota’s lead, passing open meeting laws and ethics reforms, usually after a political scandal forced politicians to act.

Minnesota is no longer a leader, not just because other states have gone further, but also because our openness has been slipping away. Routine committee meetings are still open to the public, but many of the most important policy and budget decisions are now made behind closed doors, in conference committee negotiations and in budget talks between the governor and legislative leaders.

Loopholes in Minnesota’s disclosure laws became apparent long ago, but there is little public awareness, and consequently, little pressure to close the loopholes. Recent news reports about a senator who received $70,000 from the Republican party for consulting, but did not disclose it on his financial disclosure forms, show a gaping loophole in the law.

If I was on the Minnesota Vikings payroll, secretly accepting huge consulting fees from them, the public would have no way of knowing that such a conflict of interest existed. That’s true on any issue, with any lobby, and any public official.

Thanks to a significant reform of the 1990s, public officials are prohibited from accepting gifts from lobbyists or interest groups, but they could still be collecting tens of thousands of dollars from those interests as “consultants” or “independent contractors” -and the public would never know!

I have been introducing legislation for many years (most recently Senate File 3020 in 2010), to close this loophole, yet without public awareness of it, there is little political motivation to address it.

We could open up those end-of-session budget negotiations, too. I have worked with some colleagues to do so (Senate File 1330) but that legislation continues to languish. Legislators who defend the status quo argue that politicians can be more “frank” in closed-door caucus meetings and legislative negotiations. But that response should raise red flags. It suggests that it’s OK for public officials to say one thing in public and a different thing when important decisions are made behind closed doors.

If Minnesotans deserve openness when routine legislation is debated, it is even more important when the biggest decisions are made. Public opinion polls show strong support for more transparency in government. But unless voters speak out – at their precinct caucuses, by contacting their legislators and by organizing for change – things will get worse, not better. It’s time to make Minnesota, once again, a leader in government reform.

To the Point! is published by the Apple Pie Alliance.