Lori Sturdevant, an editorial writer and columnist, has covered state government and politics for more than 30 years.

Conflicts still in store for Tomassoni

Posted by: Lori Sturdevant Updated: February 4, 2015 - 9:00 AM

Sen. David Tomassoni of Chisholm may feel vindicated by the draft opinion on his new non-legislative job that was circulated last week, in advance of Friday's special meeting of the state Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board. Its conclusion: simply taking a job as executive director of the Range Association of Municipalities and Schools does not constitute a conflict of interest for the 20-year legislator.

But Tomassoni would be well advised to study the remainder of the draft opinion. It says that the law requires a public official to "evaluate the decisions they are required to make and the actions they are required to take as a part of their official duties" to determine whether he or his enterprise stand to benefit disproportionately from those actions, compared with similar enterprises.

If the answer is yes, the public official is obliged to publicly announce that he has a conflict of interest and to decline to participate in the decision -- that is, to recuse himself.

Tomassoni said Wednesday that he expects to recuse himself only when the Range Association itself stands to directly benefit from legislation, not when a bill would aid the schools and city governments that comprise the association.

But that narrow interpretation of the law's conflict-of-interest requirements is bound to be challenged by watchful GOP senators. They can argue that as executive director of an association whose primary purpose is lobbying the Legislature, Tomassoni will have a personal stake in how well members of that association fare at the Capitol -- even if he does no lobbying himself. They'll argue that he should step aside whenever special provisions for Range cities and schools appear in bills.

If he does, he'll be stepping aside often. Bonding bills, the tax bill, and education funding bills often contain Iron Range-specific provisions. So do bills that traverse through the environment and economic development finance committee that Tomassoni chairs. He'll be under frequent pressure to reliquish his gavel or his conference committee seat. His critics can be expected to take their case to the voters in 2016. Tomassoni should consider whether he wants to face that recurring challenge to his role -- and whether he can serve his constituents well as he does.

Tomassoni's dilemma is akin to others that arise in Minnesota's "citizen Legislature," whose members are paid the princely sum of $31,140 per year plus expenses. Most of the 201 legislators have non-legislative careers or sources of income. Often, conflicts between public and private roles are tolerated with a shrug and a quip that "they've got to make a living somehow."

But when a legislator takes charge of an organization whose purpose is to influence the Legislature -- even if he vows not to do the influencing himself -- eyebrows are raised. And rightly so.

Transportation fix: It's all in the timing

Posted by: Lori Sturdevant Updated: January 26, 2015 - 3:54 PM

My guess is that state Rep. Tim Kelly played a little basketball in his day, and knows something about prolonged dribbling to delay action. That's the image that came to my mind Monday as I heard Kelly, the state House transportation chair, patter about the time not being quite right this year to enact Gov. Mark Dayton's proposed $9 billion, 10-year state highway and transit funding surge.

Kelly didn't blast Dayton's plan. He dribbled. He voiced uncertainty about Dayton's numbers. He fretted that the governor was introducing new complexity with a proposed gross receipts tax on wholesale motor fuels.  He noted that achieving bipartisan deals requires much negotiation. He said that he and the new House GOP majority would need "time to do this responsibly" -- more time than will be available during the current legislative session, which must end May 18.

And when asked why he did not accept the work of a bipartisan (though Dayton-appointed) panel of experts that said in 2012 that Minnesota need $21 billion more over 20 years just to retain the transportation system's current capacity, Kelly shot back: If that assessment is credible, why didn't DFLers act on it in 2013-14, when they controlled both chambers of the Legislature?

That DFL decision a year ago -- made by an election-wary governor and House DFL leaders -- is one they may rue today. House DFLers lost their majority despite their transporation stall. Their defeats in Greater Minnesota came in part because voters in that part of the state felt neglected by state government. Those voters could cite as evidence the deteriorating condition of many outstate highways.

Timing is always tricky when Minnesota needs a tax increase. It's easy for politicians to say a tax increase is unwise when the economy slumps, unjustified when the economy is strong, and imprudent close to an election. The right time to say yes can be brief and fleeting.

But Kelly's response Monday to Dayton's transportation proposal may suggest a GOP judgment that this is not the time to say "no way" to higher taxes for transportation, either. Too many Minnesotans can see for themselves that this state has invested too little in roads and transit. Transportation Commissioner Charlie Zelle says that the cost consumers bear for road-related damage to their vehicles alone comes to $1.2 billion per year, or $396 per licensed vehicle.

Instead, Kelly said, "I look forward to crafting a long-term solution over the next two years....Why wouldn't we take more time?" Bounce, bounce, bounce.


Crunch time for Capitol decisions

Posted by: Lori Sturdevant Updated: January 14, 2015 - 4:04 PM

It was never going to be easy -- even when they were all DFLers -- for the governor, House and Senate leaders, and the attorney general to decide how to divide space in the renovated Capitol.

But the inability of the State Capitol Preservation Commission to meet Wednesday's contractor-imposed deadline for a space allocation plan is worrisome. The commission, chaired by Gov. Mark Dayton, now has until Jan. 22 to make up its mind about how to configure the interior of the 110-year old Cass Gilbert masterpiece, now undergoing a four-year, $272 million renewal.

If the commission blows that deadline too, the project faces cost overruns to the unacceptable tune of $680,000 per month -- or more, if key workers are lured away to other projects, the commission was told.

The precise nature of the space dispute that held up action Wednesday wasn't disclosed. But already last session, whispers had it that some senior state senators were loath to surrender Capitol space that has been allocated to the Senate majority since the mid-1970s.A new office building for senators, scheduled for 2016 completion, will accommodate all 67 of them. But three Senate committee hearing rooms will remain in the Capitol. Key committee chairs and their staffs want their offices close by.

That would be convenient -- for them. It wouldn't be for Capitol visitors seeking to find their senators. It wouldn't be for the governor or the attorney general if it limits their ability to consolidate their operations in one location.

And it would be a shame if the Senate's desires pinched planned improvements in accommodations for the public. The Capitol should be both a working center of government and a place of hospitality, education and assembly for visitors of all kinds. Improving the visiting public's experience has been one of the renovation's key promises.

Dayton spoke well Wednesday when he reminded the commission -- which includes representatives of all four legislative caucuses -- that the Capitol belongs to the people. Their interests should be paramount in the space allocation decisions. And their interests also require keeping the Capitol project on time and on budget, by meeting key deadlines.

A Minnesota push for interfaith peace

Posted by: Lori Sturdevant Updated: December 5, 2014 - 1:27 PM

In the season when Christians sing of their hope for peace on earth, the Minnesota Council of Churches is stepping up its effort to promote interfaith peace and friendship in this state.

On Dec. 11, leaders of the council's 24 member churches -- mostly mainline Protestant denominations -- will meet with their counterpart "positional" leaders of at least eight non-Christian faith communities in Minnesota. They will host Shaykh Hafiz Muhammad Naqib Ur Rehman (Pir Saab) of Pakistan, a leading Sufi Muslim exponent of interfaith harmony and nonviolence who is making several stops in the Twin Cities next week.

The goal of the meeting is simple, yet profound. It's to deepen personal relationships between local leaders of diverse faiths, explained the Rev. Peg Chemberlin, Minnesota Council of Churches executive director. No joint proclamations are planned; no new organizational structure is being proposed -- at least, not initially.

Rather, Chemberlin said, the aim is the creation of informal but genuine bonds of friendship, of the sort that can lead to quick joint action and mutual support if and when interfaith harmony is threatened in Minnesota. "The relationships are central," she said. 

In some Minnesota locales and among lay people as well as clergy, interfaith relationships are already strong, she said. But there's added value when the people who have been chosen to speak for their faith communities know each other and can count on each other's public witness and personal support.

While no subsequent interfaith leadership meetings are yet planned, Chemberlin and the Council of Churches seem eager for more. Events like the 2012 shooting at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis., which left six worshippers dead, inspire in them a sense of urgency. Their effort at local friendship-building should inspire in others a sense of hope. 


A tip for freshman legislators

Posted by: Lori Sturdevant Updated: November 21, 2014 - 3:31 PM

A number of stories about former Minnesota U.S. Rep. Bill Frenzel have come my way since he died on Nov. 17, at age 86. One might be of use to newly elected members of the Minnesota House, where Frenzel started his political career and served from 1963 through 1970.

It came to me from former Court of Appeals Judge Jack Davies, who arrived in the state Senate four years before Frenzel's came to the House, and was a member of the Liberal (now DFL) caucus, then in the minority.

Frenzel affiliated with the majority Conservative (now Republican) caucus. But he wasn't initially treated as a rising star, Davies related. To the contrary: Frenzel was denied the seats he sought on major committees, presumably because he had backed the losing candidate for speaker, Aubrey Dirlam,  within the Conservative caucus. The winner, Lloyd Duxbury Jr., rewarded his allies with plum assignments, leaving Frenzel out in the cold.

"So Frenzel let it be known within the lobbyist corps that he had time to handle a 'few' bills," Davies said. "Already realizing his ability, many lobbyists came to him with their major bills. Frenzel took on sponsorship of an impressive number." He wound up making considerable impact on state policy, despite his lesser committee assignments.

That's the story Frenzel related to Davies at the session's end. Frenzel added: "Duxbury came to me yesterday and said 'You win.'" The next session, Duxbury assigned Frenzel to two major committees, appropriations and commerce. The future congressional leader on fiscal policy was on his way.


Frenzel's long reach

Posted by: Lori Sturdevant Updated: November 17, 2014 - 1:14 PM

For decades, when Minnesota editorial writers took on a weighty national or international topic -- say free trade, federal budgeting, Social Security reform, Middle Eastern policy or how best to stimulate the economy -- the assignment inspired a call to former U.S. Rep. Bill Frenzel.

Frenzel was consistently generous with his abundant knowledge, even with journalists who were far from experts. That's why editorial offices are among the Minnesota places in which news Monday of Frenzel's death in Virginia at age 86 was keenly felt.

Republican Frenzel's long career of public service started with his election to the Minnesota House in 1962, representing Golden Valley. He was soon allied with about a dozen generational peers in the Legislature who acquired the label "Young Turks." They were moderate Republicans, mostly from the metro area, who favored high-quality public services and were unafraid to deploy state government toward that end. He was a standout in a group that was loaded with ambition and talent.

When the Third District congressional seat opened in 1970, Frenzel won it by only 2,780 votes out of 220,000 cast. It was his last close election, though he would run nine more times. In Congress, his ability was soon rewarded. He became ranking Republican member of the House Budget Committee, an important voice on the House Ways and Means Committee, and for 15 years a congressional representative to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade talks in Geneva. He became a strong exponent of free trade, holding that is  key to securing a peaceful world.

Frenzel stayed in Washington after leaving Congress, but never retired. He signed on as a guest scholar with the Brookings Institution and became director of its governmental affairs institute. He said yes when President Bill Clinton called on him to help sell the North American Free Trade Agreement and when President George W. Bush asked him to serve on commissions on trade and Social Security reform. He was ever-ready with a quip, a cogent explanation and a quotable line when asked -- and he was asked often.

I was among the Minnesotans who was disappointed in 1990 when Frenzel decided to remain in Washington, and bold enough to tell him so. I hope that in one of the many conversations we had thereafter, I told him that I changed my mind. He was doing stellar service for his state and country right where he was.


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