Among the few priorities missing from Gov. Mark Dayton’s State of the State speech was political reform. It was missing from the agenda of the House caucus when the Republicans took over after the 2014 elections. So too was it missing when Democrats took control of the Legislature in 2012, or Republicans back in 2010. In fact, political reform has been off the agenda in Minnesota since 1994. The state’s reputation as a vanguard in political ethics is largely dead, producing problems such as the budget impasses and shutdowns we have seen in the last few years, and which again loom larger and larger this year.
Serious political reform has been dead in Minnesota for a generation. Its high point was 1994, when the Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, pushed through a package of reforms that placed Minnesota at the political forefront. Minnesota had a first-in-the-nation ban on lobbyist gifts to legislators, limits on contributions from PACs, lobbyists, and big donors, spending caps tied to participation in public financing, a political contribution rebate system, and among the best disclosure laws in the country for political spending, lobbyists, and legislator conflict of interest. The state attracted interest from across the country as a model for how to run clean government. But then something funny happened: Reform ended.
Legislators, lobbyists, and special interests hated the Marty reforms. They missed the lobbyist-paid-for parties and junkets, contributors did not like the disclosure of their activities, and legislators hated having to disclose all of their personal financial dealings and not being able to accept gifts in return for doing people favors. It seemed all the politcos just did not like the idea of a democracy where the voice of the people ruled and where public officials were accountable to voters. So the legislature and the governors since then have simply ignored reform.
It first started in the late 1990s when Democrats in the Senate fought hard to repeal or modify the gift ban law. It began with “You really can’t buy a vote with a cup of coffee” statement and continues today with assertions that the lack of civility and increased partisanship at the Capitol is caused by the inability of legislators to get drunk together at lobbyist-sponsored soirees at the Kelly Inn. It then came with refusals to act on other reforms being enacted in other states. Proposals for conduit fund disclosure, limits on contributions to parties and caucuses, increased lobbyist disclosure both in terms of dollar amounts and regarding what specific legislation lobbyists were talking to legislators about. The tobacco settlement and disclosure of their documents revealed a vast circumventing of ethics laws, showing how special interest money found its way into the private businesses and charities of legislators.
Proposals to create a nonpartisan redistricting commission were rejected, as were laws to declare it a conflict of interest for legislators to sponsor or vote on bills that favored parties they accepted contributions from. Revolving-door legislation to restrict legislators from cashing in on their connections and friendships for a year after leaving office was also defeated in 1999, despite the fact that then Speaker Steve Sviggum, R-Kenyon, sponsored the legislation. In 2005 then newly elected House member Tom Emmer, R-Delano, introduced a package of campaign finance and ethics reform laws that I had drafted back when I was with Common Cause. The Senate Democrats under Roger Moe, DFL-Erskine, refused to give any of the bills a hearing and in the House Republicans and Democrats worked together to kill them. Consistently and in a bipartisan fashion political reform was ground to halt.
Not only has Minnesota refused to reform but it has moved backward. At one point Gov. Tim Pawlenty killed the political contribution rebate fund and Republicans have consistently sought to abolish it permanently. The gift ban law has been weakened, and in 2013 in a bill pushed by then legislator and now Secretary of State Steve Simon, campaign contributions to candidates were dramatically increased and disclosure laws weakened. And there has been a bipartisan defunding and weakening of the Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board, rendering it statutorily one of the weakest and arguably least effective in country, despite the best intentions of its staff.
Of course, we should not forget the fact that the House and Senate Ethics Committees are largely partisan and ineffective and have long since lacked the will or desire to police the behavior of their members. And we should not forget that we have a state legislator who is also chair of the Iron Range Resources and Recovery Board, taking a job with a group that lobbies the Legislature. The IRRRB is also being investigated for making partisan patronage decisions in making economic development loans. Finally, we should not ignore, as the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported, that since 2002 60 ex-legislators have served as lobbyists or that across the state of Minnesota many local governments do not have binding ethics laws that regulate the behavior of local officials.
What is all of this result of this assault on political reform? First, Minnesota has fallen to the back of the pack when it comes to reform and ethics. The best accounting of the current sorry state of Minnesota’s political ethics laws comes from the nonpartisan and well respected Center for Public Integrity. In its 2009 study on legislative financial disclosure laws, Minnesota receives an F grade, coming in 40th among the 50 states. In 1999 the same study ranked Minnesota 35th and in 2006 39th. A steady fall. Minnesota is deficient in the range of disclosure it asks of legislators and also in terms of them updating that information. A second 2012 study by the Center measured political accountability and risk of corruption in the state. Minnesota received a D+ grade, finishing 25th among states. Notable in this study, Minnesota receives a D- when it comes to effective conflict-of-interest laws, a D on political financing, and an F on lobbyist disclosure. Minnesota simply stinks when it comes to political reform.
The second result of this failure to reform is an entrenching of special interests in state politics. Both the Republicans and Democrats have their donors and special interests that entrench political positions, exacerbate polarization, and make political compromise nearly impossible. In 2014, $64 million was spent by lobbyist principals to influence legislation at the Capitol. Combine that with political contributions to candidates, parties, and caucuses, and independent expenditures, and in excess of $80 million, or nearly $400,000 per legislator, was spent in 2014 to affect legislation or state elections. No wonder nothing can get done at the Capitol, it is locked down by special interest money that makes it impossible to act. This is why Minnesota has had two shutdowns in the recent past and why it now appears possible that the state is hurling toward another.
The collapse of political ethics and government reform in Minnesota is directly connected to its failures in governance. Minnesota has a failed budget process that is again repeating itself. It is unable to make badly needed reforms to infrastructure funding, local government aid, meaningful K-12 reform, and a host of other structural problems that confront the state. It will not be until the governor and the Legislature actually decide to make political and ethical reform a priority that the other problems will be solved.
David Schultz is a professor of political science at Hamline University in St. Paul.