Subpoena power: If the Public Safety Department fails to produce redacted emails related to communications about $105 million in federal transportation funds, House members say they may force the issue using rarely exercised committee subpoena powers.
The transportation bill in question belongs to Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, chair of the House Transportation Finance Committee. It would appropriate the money to MnDOT this year to fund some 28 highway projects.
The money has been sitting in limbo since the state received a Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act grant last year. Its use has yet to be authorized by the Legislature.
Gov. Mark Dayton’s administration attempted to get around that late last year using Legislative Advisory Commission authority. The Transportation Finance Committee chair at the time, former Rep. Tim Kelly, R-Red Wing, objected and Dayton withdrew his request.
The dust-up prompted then-Rep. Tim Sanders, R-Blaine, to write MnDOT requesting that it turn over all email discussions related to the Legislative Advisory Commission discussions. That request was ignored until Torkelson renewed it in late February, he said. When MnDOT finally turned over the documents, they were heavily redacted.
Torkelson’s response was to include a provision in the FAST money authorization bill allowing it to be released only if MnDOT produces the un-redacted emails. That provision pushed the bill into the Civil Law and Data Practices Policy Committee, which is now hinting that it may subpoena the documents.
MnDOT Government Affairs Director Scott Peterson said the emails were redacted because they represented “preliminary drafts” of Dayton’s advisory council request, and therefore were not deemed public. That failed to impress anyone on the committee.
“I don’t have a good sense of the department’s defense of the redaction,” said Rep. John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul. “It seems to me that there is not really a defense.”
“It really does seem like there is a cover-up here,” said Rep. Peggy Scott, R-Andover. “And it is very distressing.”
Lesch, the Democrat, reminded his colleagues that they have subpoena power to bring the matter to a head. Scott, the committee’s chair, agreed that might be necessary.
“This committee member will be the first to gladly issue a stack of subpoenas higher than my hip to everyone in the commission and the governor’s office who is associated with this,” said Rep. Dennis Smith, R-Maple Grove.
The committee approved the bill and sent it back to Ways and Means. It now sits on the General Register awaiting a floor vote, Torkelson said Thursday.
Child care rulings: A Senate bill that would give administrative law judges the final say in child care provider licensing disputes, suspensions and fines received no vote when it was heard earlier in a Senate committee earlier this month. But it still has life.
Senate File 1953 was authored by Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake. It would eliminate the state Department of Human Services’ ability to override administrative law judges’ rulings in those disputes.
“What we are attempting to do here with this bill is to make the administrative law judge the final opinion,” she told the Senate Human Services Reform Finance and Policy Committee on March 13. Following a lengthy discussion, the committee’s chair, Sen. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, laid it over for possible inclusion in the Human Services omnibus bill without a vote.
As things work now, Kiffmeyer said, administrative law judges’ rulings are returned to the agency, where they can either accepted or rejected. She wants to put a stop to that.
However, as a partial offset her bill would give DHS the opportunity to review a judge’s ruling prior to issuance so the department could provide input.
Cynthia Cunningham, a St. Paul child care provider, spoke for the bill. She said that when county licensors issue negative findings, the provider’s license can be immediately suspended or revoked, and they can face fines. Providers can appeal, but that process often takes months, she said.
“After they are shut down, parents are without care and providers are without income,” she said.
Cunningham said that after the judge rules, another three months can go by while DHS decides whether to abide by the decision. Even if it agrees, she added, the agency can unilaterally add monthly inspections and other additional conditions.
“This continues the guilt even though I am found innocent by the administrative law judge,” Cunningham said.
Regina Wagner, a deputy DHS general licensing inspector, opposed the bill. She pointed out that the law applies to child care providers and none of the various other entities subject to departmental licensure.
She said the Kiffmeyer bill actually might work against providers’ interests. Of 45 child care-related administrative law judge rulings issued last year, 14 were resolved by DHS in ways more favorable to the provider than the judge’s findings, she said.
Wagner also hinted that the bill might actually extend the appeals process, rather than shortening it, by throwing the cases to the appeals court.
Sen. Jeff Hayden, DFL-Minneapolis, worried that bill would give special considerations not available to other DHS-licensed entities, like medical transportation companies. He said he would not support the bill.
Abeler thought Hayden’s concerns had merit and suggested laying the measure over for possible inclusion in the omnibus bill, to allow more time for fine tuning. Kiffmeyer agreed and the bill was set aside without a vote.
Terrorism bill: A proposed anti-terrorism statute is moving ahead as part of a larger House omnibus bill.
House File 1475, authored by Rep. Keith Franke, R-St. Paul Park, is included in the House Public Safety and Security Policy and Finance Committee’s omnibus bill, first presented on March 23.
The Franke bill would establish a new crime for soliciting or providing material support to terrorist acts. It would also make it a crime to help a terrorist elude capture. Conviction for the felony offense would be punishable by up to 15 years in prison and a $30,000 fine.
Rep. Jack Considine, DFL-Mankato, a member of the Public Safety committee, asked about the bill’s fiscal impact during its March 16 hearing. “We’re creating a new felony with 15 years in prison, how can there not be a fiscal impact on that?” he asked.
Committee Fiscal Analyst John Walz said there likely not be any impact.
“Sentencing guidelines assume that there would be extremely rare, if any, cases of prosecution under state law,” he said. “They would most likely be done by the federal government.”
Rep. Dave Pinto, DFL-St. Paul said he generally supports the bill but wondered about the law’s intent. “I think this is all just about putting something on the books, a tool in the tool basket,” Franke said.
In an interview later, Franke added that Minnesota prosecutors have told him a state statute would be useful if federal prosecutors decided not to pursue a terror-solicitation case because of a lack of time or resources, yet local authorities still see it as a worthy case.
“It’ll be nice,” he said. “We don’t have anything like this on the books in Minnesota.”