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Legislator cries foul over law library veto

Laurie Halverson, DFL-Eagan, said she had been approached by several aw librarians, all of them opposed to the bill. (Staff photo: Kevin Featherly)

Laurie Halverson, DFL-Eagan, said she had been approached by several aw librarians, all of them opposed to the bill. (Staff photo: Kevin Featherly)

The author of a vetoed law library bill says he thinks Gov. Mark Dayton acted vindictively in nixing his obscure legislation.

Rep. Nick Zerwas, R-Elk River, authored the House version of Senate File 1113, a bill that would have allowed county law libraries to transfer money collected through user fees to counties to help finance court-related construction.

“County law librarians have raised concerns that the legislation too broadly applies,” Dayton wrote in his May 5 veto message to Senate President Michelle Fischbach, R-Paynesville.

However, Zerwas accused the governor of vetoing the library bill to punish him personally for championing increased penalties against protesters.

“I can’t believe the governor was petty enough to veto this bill,” Zerwas said in a May 8 interview. “I think the governor can’t veto one of my bills, so he is going to veto a different one.”

The protester penalties are among the most controversial of the current session. They were included in the public safety-judiciary omnibus spending bill.

While that bill does face a veto once it clears the House and Senate, the setback likely would be temporary. Assuming there is time before the session’s May 22 finish, Dayton could still sign the omnibus legislation once it is brought back to his office for further negotiations.

“I can’t wait until he signs my protest bill and vetoes this,” Zerwas said. “I am going to frame the signature for the protest bill in the same frame as the veto on this.”

The governor’s office rejects the lawmaker’s accusation. “This is totally absurd,” said Sam Fettig, Dayton’s press secretary. “The governor does not operate that way.”

Unintended effect

Librarians had complained that the bill’s wording opened the door to diverting library user fees toward construction not just of new or renovated law libraries, but of entire county court buildings.

“This bill will promote confusion by making counties think that it will be OK to spend law library funds for non-law library costs,” Washington County law librarian Pauline Afuso wrote in an April 14 email to Minnesota Lawyer prior to the bill’s House passage.

“Why is that in there?” she said in a phone interview the same day. “Why would we want to spend money to go and build a court?”

The one-paragraph bill seemed to suggest that was possible. It would authorize county law libraries with enough fiscal reserves to sustain operations for five years to transfer up to half of that money — up to $200,000 — to the county where it is located.

The money could then be used to defray “costs of constructing a new building to house the law library and courts,” the bill said.

Zerwas said that the law would require a library to retain five years of operating reserves even after the funds transfer. The transaction would have to be approved both by a law library’s board and county commissioners, he said.

On March 20, the measure passed 64-0 in the Senate, where it was authored by Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake. It received no debate in the chamber.

However, the bill ran into vocal opposition when taken up by the House on May 1, after law librarians began agitating against it.

When Zerwas initially presented his bill to the House Government Operations and Elections Policy Committee on March 2, he said it was “a local bill having only to do with Sherburne County.”

The county, he explained, is remodeling and expanding its government operations center and the bill would allow that county’s law library to free up some of its reserve funds for that project.

However, when Rep. Mike Freiberg, DFL-Golden Valley, offered what he called a friendly amendment to limit the bill’s scope to Sherburne County, Zerwas asked members to reject it.

Democrats reacted skeptically. “By expanding it to all the state, you are basically opening up to a money grab,” said Rep. Michael Nelson, DFL-Brooklyn Park. “Counties could use it to take money away from the law libraries, which are essential to our justice system.”

Laurie Halverson, DFL-Eagan, said she had been approached by law librarians from Scott, Hennepin, Wright, Ramsey, Carver and Washington counties, all of them opposed to the bill.

“It is something that the law libraries are having a great concern over,” she said. “If there is agreement in Sherburne County that this should be done, then I think it should be isolated to Sherburne County.”

Zerwas told House members he wanted to retain the statewide language to avoid patchwork legislation. “What the bill does is allows all counties and county libraries to be treated equally,” he said. “I think that is very important.”

The amendment to limit the bill to Sherburne County failed 64-68. The overall bill then passed 69-62.

Dayton said in his veto letter that he would consider signing “more narrowly crafted” legislation. Zerwas said on May 8 that he had hoped to resubmit it as a more tailored bill, in time to have it pass this session.

“I have talked to the chairs of State Government Finance and I’m hopeful that we will be able to do the language specific to my situation,” Zerwas said.

He said he hoped that more closely tailored provisions would be included in the omnibus state government finance bill. But they were not included in the government finance bill passed by the both House and Senate on May 9.

Kiffmeyer late Wednesday attempted to place a Sherburne County-only law library measure into a bill to update several minor court statutes. That effort was killed after Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, challenged her amendment’s germaneness.

One comment

  1. Rep. Zerwas is noted in the article as wanting to include in the bill “statewide language to avoid patchwork legislation.” However, the actual quote from Rep. Zerwas, “What the bill does is allows all counties and county libraries to be treated equally,” indicates that he may not understand the statutory framework he is working in as well as he could.

    In MN Statutes there are separate chapters for counties (mainly Chapter 373), for county libraries (Chapter 134), and for county law libraries (Chapter 134A). Each type of entity is governed under its own statutes and operates accordingly. When the representative says he wants to treat counties and county libraries equally, he is leaving county law libraries out of his equation entirely, and thereby missing the essence of what county law libraries are, which is that they are libraries in the county, but they are not county libraries.

    A county library is a department within the county, under the county governance structure and getting its budget from the county. County law libraries are separate government entities organized under a different statute, and getting their budgets solely from court fees and fines that are collected by the courts for the express purpose of funding all operations of that county law library. (yes, Hennepin and Ramsey are a bit different in terms of funding, but we are speaking here to the setup for the other 84 county law libraries in Minnesota, which would have been affected by this bill.)

    Under Chapter 134A, the county owns title to the county law library, but the county law library is not under the county governance structure nor are its funds a part of the county budget, as is the case with a county library. The county law library has its own line of governance and authority, and only the statutorily designated County Law Library Board of Trustees may decide how and when to disburse any county law library funds, and under statute must do so only for that which directly supports the operation of the county law library. Funding other purposes, such as paying for construction of county or court infrastructure, raises a clear concern that the Law Library Board may be stepping in the direction of fiduciary breach of their duty as trustees.

    So when Rep. Zerwas talks about wanting to treat counties and county libraries equally, he is leaving county law libraries out of the conversation, which raises a question about whether he understands how these things all hang together statutorily. You probably can and should treat counties and county libraries equally, since one is a part of the other and is under the other’s control.

    But when you are talking about county law library funds, you have to understand and consider that the county law library is an entirely different and separate entity under law. It is in the county, but it is not a part of the county. Because there is a separate statute for county law libraries, it is clear that county law libraries are not to be treated as county libraries (if they were, they would be included in the county library statute, but they aren’t). The county law library is not part of the county library, the county, or for that matter the courts, because statutorily all of these entities are have their own statutes, are separate and different, and each needs to be considered for the type of entity they actually are.

    Bottom line – you cannot treat them all “equally” because they aren’t, and they aren’t because they were never intended to be. County law libraries are separate, and so is their money, dedicated to the county law library and its purposes only. And if the representative actually does understand all of this, then one has to question whether the purpose of this legislation is anything more than a sneak-around-the-rules to try and get money that is not and never was designated for the purposes intended by his bill.

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