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Home / Features / In the Hopper: Blaha’s blues; dueling pot bills; a new ERA
State Auditor Julie Blaha speaks to the Senate State Government Finance and Policy and Elections Committee on Jan. 17. (Staff photo: Kevin Featherly)
State Auditor Julie Blaha speaks to the Senate State Government Finance and Policy and Elections Committee on Jan. 17. (Staff photo: Kevin Featherly)

In the Hopper: Blaha’s blues; dueling pot bills; a new ERA

Blaha’s blues: Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, has greeted new State Auditor Julie Blaha with a punitive bill that would send hundreds of thousands of dollars from Blaha’s budget to the three Minnesota counties sued by her predecessor.

The bill also would block Blaha from seeking reimbursement for any legal costs incurred by the office when former State Auditor Rebecca Otto unsuccessfully sued the counties for hiring private auditors.

Kiffmeyer’s Senate File 154 would require Blaha’s office pay all office legal expenses out of her constitutional office division. That tiny unit consists only of Donald McFarland, Blaha’s communications and legislative affairs director, and Blaha herself.

“Only allocations made to the constitutional office division on or before Jan. 1, 2020, may be used to pay these costs,” the bill says. Blaha could not decrease allocations to, transfer any funds from or cut back services in other divisions to pay the legal fees.

Blaha made an appearance before Kiffmeyer’s State Government Finance and Policy and Elections Committee in what Kiffmeyer later described as a “meet-and-greet” session. The bill did not come up.

Asked about it later, Kiffmeyer said she was not sure when the bill might get a hearing in her committee, but it probably wouldn’t happen before February.

Otto sued Wright, Becker and Ramsey counties after they hired private auditors, usurping the state auditor’s customary role. That happened only after Gov. Mark Dayton signed a 2015 law granting counties permission to hire private CPAs. Otto lost her case and all subsequent appeals. Blaha was elected to replace her in November after Otto ran for governor but failed to get the DFL endorsement.

Kiffmeyer said it’s only fitting that the state auditor should reimburse counties for their legal expenses, which she estimated to be “at least a couple of hundred thousand dollars.”

“It was a significant burden to them,” Kiffmeyer said. “It was the state auditor who decided to sue and wouldn’t accept the legislation as it was passed. So I think it is right for that money to come from there.”

Last year, Otto told Minnesota Lawyer that she tried to enlist Attorney General Lori Swanson as counsel, which would have greatly limited legal costs. Swanson’s office declined, according to Otto.

The state auditor’s constitutional division represented just 4 percent of the office’s roughly $19 million 2016-17 budget, according to the office’s most recent agency profile. In an interview last week, Blaha said she is reviewing the bill’s possible impact.

“That is one of the things we are definitely going to look at,” she said. “What’s it cost? What is the practical impact of what we do going forward? I think we need to be really careful about any unintended consequences.”

Kiffmeyer’s bill lists one Democrat, Sen. Kent Eken, DFL-Twin Valley, as a co-author.

Rep. Eric Lucero, R-Dayton, wrote the Senate bill’s companion, House File 187, which likewise lists a Democrat, Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, as co-author.

 

Dueling pot bills. One DFL lawmaker has submitted a bill to put pot legalization in the hands of voters. Another would to do the same thing, but take the legislative route.

Rep. Ray Dehn, DFL-Minneapolis, chair of the House Elections subcommittee, on Tuesday offered House File 265, a constitutional amendment to legalize marijuana. The bill was referred to the Health and Human Services Policy Committee. It has no Senate companion.

“I think that people should have a voice in whether or not we legalize cannabis throughout the state of Minnesota,” Dehn said in an interview Friday.

“The amendment pretty much says that the people of Minnesota have decided that we should end the prohibition on cannabis and it instructs the Legislature to work out all the details,” he said.

Meanwhile Rep. Mike Freiberg, DFL-Golden Valley, said he expected his marijuana legalization bill to drop later in the week, perhaps Thursday. Freiberg is chair of the House Government Operations Committee.

Freiberg said he prefers his approach to with Dehn’s on the issue. “I am not convinced that this belongs in the state constitution,” he said.

Freiberg’s said last week that his bill will be patterned after his similar 2018 bill, House File 4541, which dropped on the last day of session. It would have permitted any Minnesotan over the age of 21 to use marijuana and gave the state Department of Health regulatory authority over its marketing, manufacture and sale.

That bill also permitted local authorities to adopt stricter ordinances than state law—though it would not permit outright local prohibitions of the drug.

Freiberg said he waited until the end of last session to submit the bill because he wanted it to attract interest and conversation over the interim month—which it did. He says the new bill will have several tweaks as a result, including expungements for nonviolent possession convictions.

Despite their differences, Dehn said he is confident his bill will get a hearing in Freiberg’s committee. And he knows it will be hearing in another committee. “I know the chair of Elections pretty well,” Dehn said with a smile. “That’s me.”

 

A new ERA. The #MeToo movement may be thoroughly modern, but it’s set to fire off two blasts from the past at the Capitol on Thursday.

Two bills recalling the 1970s-vintage Equal Rights Amendment are scheduled for legislative hearings in the House Government Operations Committee on Thursday.

The federal ERA would have guaranteed legal rights to all American citizens without regard to sex. It was approved by 35 out of the required 38 states before its original March 22, 1979, ratification deadline. However, four states took the controversial—and constitutionally dubious—step of rescinding ratification.

Then, as #MeToo gained steam, two more states—Illinois and Nevada—took up and ratified the original ERA. Despite the four 1970s-era rescissions, many observers say that the federal amendment is just one state short of adoption.

One of those is Rep. Rena Moran, DFL-St. Paul, whose House File 71 is a resolution petitioning Congress to nullify its decades-old ERA deadline and allow adoption as soon as it gets approved by three-quarters of the states.

Moran’s bill also calls on other states “to join in this action by passing the same or similar resolutions.” Its companion, Senate File 208, is authored by Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul. New Mexico did pass a similar resolution in 2013.

The other ERA-related bill scheduled for a hearing Thursday, House File 13, works closer to home.

It would put a state constitutional amendment on the ballot that mirrors the broad language of the original ERA’s gender discrimination ban. Its author is Rep. Mary Kunesh-Podein, DFL-New Brighton.

“Assumed equality is not enough,” Kunesh-Podein wrote in her Jan. 18 legislative update letter to constituents explaining her bill. “Our state should work for all of us, no matter what we look like or who we are.”

Her bill’s companion, Senate File 200, is authored by Sen. Richard Cohen, DFL-St. Paul. Unlike any of the other three ERA-related bills discussed here, Cohen’s has attracted two Republican co-sponsors—Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester and Sen. Scott Jensen, R-Chaska.

The hearing for both House bills was set for 9:45 a.m. Thursday, Jan. 24, in the State Office Building’s Basement Hearing Room.

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