If Democracy 101 were a class, Minnesota might want to think about taking it on a credit/no-credit basis.
That’s one possible response from among many to the state’s grade of D-minus in a new report on transparency and accountability in government from the Center for Public Integrity, a Pulitzer Prize-winning nonprofit investigative news organization based in Washington, D.C.
Reaction in Minnesota varied widely, with legislators taking issue with and embracing the report. Even those from independent watchdog and advocacy groups who were interviewed for the report found parts with which they agreed and disagreed.
Featured prominently in the center’s write-up were the final minutes of the regular 2016 legislative session, when representatives shouted over the sound of the gavel that they hadn’t seen the bills they were asked to vote on.
To Jeremy Schroeder, executive director at Common Cause Minnesota, that moment crystallized why Minnesota deserved a D-minus grade. Schroeder asked: If lawmakers can’t keep up with what the Legislature is doing, and longtime observers like himself are left scratching their heads, how are average citizens supposed to understand their own government?
As the report noted, a near-failing grade flies in the face of Minnesota’s outside reputation as a good-government state — which Schroeder said would likely increase its impact here.
Also interviewed for the center’s report was Mark Haveman, executive director at the Minnesota Center for Fiscal Excellence, who said his organization is part of a national network, and “in anecdotal sharing with my peers, we’ve got it much better here.”
However, Haveman was skeptical about the extremely low grades most states earned from the center (only three states managed to score above a D). “Grades seemed a little harsh,” he said, noting that shocking grades would gain more media attention than emphasis, in Minnesota’s case, on an overall middle-of-the-pack result.
The report evaluated state government in 13 areas: public access to information; political finance; electoral oversight; executive accountability; legislative accountability; judicial accountability; state budget processes; state civil service management; procurement; internal auditing; lobbying disclosure; ethics enforcement agencies; and state pension fund management.
The state’s scores varied widely by area of analysis, ranging from a B for internal auditing to an F for the transparency and accountability of its judiciary. (Thirty-two other states also flunked the center’s test for judicial accountability.)
Even while giving a relatively high grade on the state’s audit function, the Center for Public Integrity’s article on Minnesota recalled the move last spring when “representatives from both parties met quietly to discuss a surprise provision to strip the state auditor’s office of its local auditing responsibility. The bill was passed and signed by Gov. Mark Dayton in May.”
That action wasn’t included in the report’s analysis and scoring, which wrapped up in March.
State Auditor Rebecca Otto, who was traveling Thursday, told Capitol Report in a statement: “I have reviewed the audit section of the report, and having a strong audit function on behalf of the taxpayers is one of the bright spots in the report.”
On judicial accountability, the center faulted Minnesota for the absence of any systematic performance-evaluation process for judges, not having a mandatory “cooling-off” period when judges leave the bench for the private sector and relatively weak disclosure rules. One of the major flaws: an electorate that knows next to nothing about the judges whose names appear on the ballot.
But lawmakers aren’t eager to move away from conventional elections through a constitutional amendment creating an appointment system followed by retention elections. According to Sarah Walker, a lobbyist at the Capitol and the president of the Coalition for Impartial Justice, that’s partly because they remain gun shy about tinkering with the constitution after suffering political blowback from two highly divisive amendments placed on the ballot in 2012. Those proposals — banning same-sex marriage and requiring voters to present ID at the polls — were widely seen as factors that swept the GOP out of majority at the Legislature.
Beau Berentson, Minnesota Judicial Branch spokesperson, responded to the report in an email (edited for length): “In order to produce their ‘state integrity’ rankings, the Center for Public Integrity chooses a small number of measures by which to evaluate each government entity. If a government entity happens to do well in the measures favored by the Center, they do well in the Center’s rankings. If a state does not meet some of those selected measures, they perform poorly in the Center’s rankings. By no means are the Center’s rankings a thorough evaluation of a government entity’s performance, or an exhaustive look at transparency and accountability of government. The Center chooses a few measuring sticks, and then ranks states on how well they do in those measures.”
One factor that sets Minnesota apart from many other states that scored low: a lack of marquee corruption cases. But Schroeder of Common Cause said chronic experience with such cases involving high-profile officials has prodded other states to adopt reforms that Minnesotans haven’t felt the need to take up yet — leaving the Gopher State with inadequate laws compared to, for example, Illinois and New Jersey.
Still, for whatever reason, corruption on that scale hasn’t happened in Minnesota.
Schroeder offered a clarification: “It hasn’t happened — yet.”
Minnesota Lawyer reporter Mike Mosedale contributed to this article.