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Data practices commission debuts with unresolved issues on its mind

A new panel responsible for overseeing the tricky relationship between public data, state law and citizen privacy has made its debut. The Legislative Commission on Data Practices convened its inaugural hearing on Tuesday morning, taking a brief walk-through of its duties and floating some possible issues to explore in the coming months.

The commission, which was created by legislation passed earlier this year, took only one official action in its inaugural meeting. Rep. Mary Liz Holberg, R-Lakeville, the data privacy maven who is leaving the Legislature after eight terms, was selected as chair, and Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, will handle the duties of vice chair.

The commission took testimony from Department of Administration staffers, who represented that agency’s Information Policy Analysis Division (IPAD), which handles requests from citizens, journalists, legislators and state employees relating to state data practice law. Uniquely among state agencies, IPAD also offers its services as a legislative drafting service, though it does not take positions for or against proposed laws it helps to write.

“When we come to the table, it is not as an advocate,” said Laurie Beyer-Kropuenske, director of community services at the Department of Administration. “It’s  often just to give subject matter expertise — does the bill work? Are there questions?”

IPAD is also tasked with overseeing the granting of temporary classifications for certain types of data, which often come from a state agency seeking to hold on to information that would otherwise be public. Though these instances are rare, recent examples have affected high-profile news stories, such as a Department of Human Services move to reclassify some data related to the Minnesota Sex Offender Program, or the request by the MNsure health insurance exchange to keep some of its marketing materials under wraps prior to open enrollment.

Both of those requests were turned down, though the department did grant a temporary status for data collected by the City of Minneapolis through its controversial law enforcement license plate reader program. On that same topic, commission member Rep. John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul, asked when the Legislature would need to act on the matter.

“I don’t want to get into the same fiasco we had in … 2012,” Lesch said, referring to the city’s hasty move to make the information private after revelations in the Star Tribune.

Beyer-Kropuenske informed Lesch that lawmakers could act any time during the 2015 session to avoid running up against the temporary finding’s August 1, 2015 expiration date.

The license plate tracking system was one of several subjects mentioned by members of the panel when Holberg opened the floor for future agenda items. Lesch also mentioned criticisms of the recent “Timberjay bill,” an addition to the Data Practices Act that makes public some data pertaining to state subcontractors. That legislation, passed earlier this year, included a one-year exemption for health plans that contract with the state — a matter of particular interest to Lesch, who said different sources had given him conflicting answers on whether the plans were currently the subject of a Department of Justice investigation.

Camera-bearing drones, which were the subject of several pieces of legislation offered last session, are also likely to be highlighted in commission hearings. Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, said the panel should look into a Department of Public Safety claim that some information is protected by surveillance equipment makers’ copyrights, despite a legislative determination that it should be available to the public.

Holberg explained that her plan, as established with House Speaker Paul Thissen in creating the commission, is for the group to meet as many as half a dozen times over the course of this year. Though there is no established timetable for producing recommendations, she said the commission would hold open that option as it proceeds with its work.

After the hearing, Holberg said she’s confident the commission’s work during the next six months could lead directly to legislative policy changes in 2015, especially as its membership includes Lesch, who chairs the House Civil Law Committee, and Rep. Peggy Scott, R-Andover, who serves as Republican lead on that committee.

Holberg added that she hopes the commission might help the Legislature arrive at overarching ways of thinking about the state’s approach to what should be public and private.

“My primary purpose is to develop more expertise in the Legislature on these very complex issues,” Holberg said. “I’m kind of enjoying the awakening if you will — which is, of course, a direct result of the public’s interest as well.”

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