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Holberg: ‘I loved every minute of it’

Rep. Mary Liz Holberg, R-Lakeville, is retiring after 16 years in the state House of Representatives. The former Lakeville City Council member and potential future Dakota County commissioner is best known around the Capitol for her immersive knowledge of privacy and data practices issues.

Holberg, 54, also served as chair of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee when Republicans held the House and Senate in 2011-12. She delivered a moving retirement speech on the House floor last Friday after lawmakers had wrapped up their business for the 2014 session.

Capitol Report spoke with Holberg on Tuesday, four days after the Legislature’s adjournment ended one phase of her statehouse career. Before she’s done entirely, however, Holberg hopes to serve for a few months on the Legislative Commission on Data Practices and Personal Data Privacy whose creation she spearheaded in one of her last major legislative initiatives.

Capitol Report: What drove you to run for the Legislature in 1998?

Mary Liz Holberg: My predecessor, Bill Macklin, received a judicial appointment. So, it was an open seat, and once that announcement was made public, actually, people started calling me and asking me to run. It was nothing I ever considered.

At the time, I was on the Lakeville City Council, and I had been involved in local Republican politics for a number of years. … In a field of seven, I got the endorsement on the second ballot.

CR: Why did you decide to leave?

Holberg: I felt like it was just time to let somebody else have the opportunity, and being almost 55 years old, it’s time for me to try something different, as well. I certainly loved every minute of it, but it’s not a part-time job.

I don’t care what anybody says. If you’re doing it right, it’s not a part-time job. … I found myself not having the time to do the things I really enjoyed, like volunteering on the arts board or friends of the library group.

CR: What went into your decision to run for Dakota County commissioner? Did the significant salary increase factor heavily into the decision?

Holberg: Not heavily. For me, it’s never been about the money. It’s about the opportunity to serve the community, be involved in the decision-making process, being able to work to try to make the community better for its residents.

CR: What is your proudest achievement?

Holberg: I think the Woman’s Right to Know Act, in which information is required to be offered to women considering abortion. Following the enactment of that, abortions dropped 14 percent in the following year, which is pretty typical of what happened in others states as well. I believe that that legislation saved lives.

CR: You’ve been known as an advocate for data privacy. Can you speak about some of the main victories you’ve helped score on that issue?

Holberg: I think just raising awareness of the issue is very important. I also believe that the legislation that passed this year that enacted a data practices commission will serve for better policymaking in this area for years to come.

My main purpose in putting in that legislation was to try to develop more expertise in the legislative body around these important and complex issues, and I’m hopeful that that will happen.

CR: Please talk more about why you think the Legislative Commission on Data Practices and Personal Data Privacy will be important. Do you consider it a legacy?

Holberg: I don’t consider it a legacy. I think it’s important in that these issues are coming at public policymakers very rapidly. The changes in technology are far outpacing our ability to enact public policy, and so then you have bad results.

You look at the issue around license plate readers. We still haven’t been able to enact a policy around that … . Now it’ll be one more year before that information would then become public, so the Legislature most definitely will have to act next year to resolve some of the tensions between privacy and public safety.

CR: Are you concerned that you won’t be part of the discussion?

Holberg: No legislator is irreplaceable. I’ve watched over the years. The place ebbs and flows with new people and personalities, and I’m completely confident that others will take up the issue as a priority. So no, I’m not worried.

Will I agree with everything they do? No, but… I have confidence over the long term they’ll do the right thing. It might take some weird twists and turns to get there.

CR: Separate from data privacy issues, you chaired the House Ways and Means committee during a steep period of deficits. How difficult was it to make up a $5 billion deficit without resorting to tax increases? Would you rather have raised revenue than go for the cuts?

Holberg: No, no, no. We employed a really collaborative process involving all the fiscal chairs working out what our most pressing needs were and setting targets similar in process to how it’s done when there’s actually revenue available.

It’s much more difficult to close all the gaps when, for the most part, you’re doing reductions. You have to manage expectations from the get-go and decide we’re all in this together and that everybody has to do their part, and it was difficult. I don’t regret it. If you look at what happened after we did that, we saw very nice recovery in the state.

CR: You’ve talked about the need to work together. That’s easier in a data practices sense a lot of the time, versus something like controlling abortion or prohibiting gay marriage. Stylistically, how did you approach those two very different policy areas?

Holberg: Like I said in my floor speech, I recognize we’re not always going to agree. We can agree to disagree, but try not to be disagreeable. I’m respectful of other views. I always took all comers as far as visiting my office to discuss issues, and I was always willing to listen. If I was working with colleagues, there were just some things that [DFL Rep.] Phyllis Kahn and I are not going to agree on, but I respect her position and work with her on issues.

CR: In your farewell speech, you asked that lawmakers do better for the sake of Minnesotans and for the sake of the institution. Why is that so important? In what ways have lawmakers been slipping?

Holberg: A lot of ways. I have a lot of concerns with some of the things that have been happening in the House in the last couple years. Making the firefighters honor guard stand out there and wait for an hour while session started late [is one].

We saw particularly in this legislative session … in the omnibus spending bill, where the fiscal chairs … would work out whole articles of that bill outside of the public realm, and then we saw a number of complete articles adopted to the bill in a process that maybe in my mind could have benefited from a little more sunshine.

I think, too, that the other issue that has concerned me is just how legislators conduct themselves. The public’s pretty frustrated with politicians in general, and I think that in some ways we bring that on ourselves by poor choices that some of us make that it reflects on all of us as a group.

CR: What are the biggest disappointments of your tenure at the House? And specifically this session?

Holberg: I’m such a realist, I guess. I wish we would have been able to resolve the license plate reader issue, but I’ve experienced, in data practices, having to come back a number of years to get things right.

The bullying bill was a large disappointment for me. I think the ramifications on parental involvement and awareness of what’s going on with their kids or schools took a major hit with that legislation. Parental protections are inadequate.

CR: Also in your farewell speech, you mentioned you have a few months left to finish up some more work. What do you hope to accomplish?

Holberg: I’m hoping to be appointed to the data practices commission for my remaining six months, and maybe help provide the framework for setting the stage for some upcoming and pervasive issues around data practices for the next legislative session. Again, going back to my purpose for that legislation, it was to try to develop more expertise in the body. If I can be part of that initial process, that would be great.

CR: What’s your favorite memory from serving in the Minnesota House of Representatives?

Holberg: I remember really fondly [that] as a freshman, I was put on a conference committee for the Judiciary finance bill. Republicans had just taken control of the House, and Mary Murphy, who was the former chair in that subject area [and I] … ended up being two of the five conferees that refused to sign the conference committee report when it was all said and done.

I thought the process was very distasteful, and I had Sen. Randy Kelly chasing me around the Capitol trying to intimidate me into signing that report. I remember learning a lot from Mary Murphy and really respecting her input into that, and to this day we’re really, really good friends. I tried as a freshman to really listen and learn as much as possible, and … I learned a lot — and not necessarily from people on my side of the aisle, so that was fun.

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