Word that state Rep. Joe Atkins will leave the Legislature after 14 years and run for the nonpartisan Dakota County Board bears note, for several reasons. Atkins, DFL-Inver Grove Heights, has been a very able legislator. He joins a number of senior legislators in recent years who have left state service to seek better-compensated, less-partisan county board seats. And he leaves under a conflict-of-interest cloud that both tells a cautionary tale and points to a systemic problem for the Legislature.
Atkins, 50, is an attorney and former mayor who brought the Legislature a welcome bipartisan bent and a willingness to tackle complex issues, such as the creation of the MNsure health exchange. He also has served as executive director of the BEST Foundation, a nonprofit that raises money for scholarships from businesses, some of whom lobby at the Legislature. Atkins is the DFL ranking member of the House commerce committee, which oversees business regulation. That’s a conflict of a sort that’s all too common at Minnesota’s part-time Legislature, where many members struggle to supplement their meager $31,140 salary.
Atkins also came under fire recently upon news that he was receiving public pension benefits from his local school district for his BEST job and that his children received scholarships from BEST. Atkins says he played no part in choosing scholarship winners. But one in a position of public trust should be sensitive to the appearance of special favors. The pension arrangement rightly has ended; his children should not have been scholarship applicants. And Minnesotans should know that as long as this state has a low-salary, part-time Legislature, conflicts with legislators’ “other jobs” likely will recur.