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

How legislators see -- and don't see -- conflicts of interest

Posted by: Lori Sturdevant Updated: January 4, 2013 - 3:26 PM

Evidently, it took GOP state Rep. Steve Gottwalt most of the day Thursday to see what others found obvious:  His new job as a lobbyist for a St. Louis Park-based medical technology company is incompatible with continued service in the Minnesota House. At 6 p.m., about eight hours after news of his new position went public, the three-term St. Cloud representative announced that he would leave the Legislature.  

Even then, Gottwalt's letter of resignation did not acknowledge the potential for a confict of interest. It cited only the demands of his new job. His early pronouncements stressed that he would lobby in other states, not Minnesota. His new boss, Center for Diagnostic Imaging CEO Elisabeth Quam, would do the lobbying in St. Paul -- that is, she would lobby him, if he had stayed in office. He chaired the House Human Services Reform Committee last session, and had been tapped to be a leading player for his minority caucus on two human services committees in the new DFL-controlled House.

He evidently found that much coziness with one health care provider acceptable, at least initially. That means that he was thinking like legislators often do about conflicts of interest -- and thereby positioning himself to be the latest poster child for Minnesotans who say that special interests have too much sway over legislative decisions.

Minnesota has a part-time, "citizen" Legislature. At least in theory, this state expects legislators to perform public service only a few months each year, and to derive a sizeable share of their livelihoods from employment outside government. Legislators are paid accordingly, $31,140 per year, plus per diem for expenses.

Not many private careers lend themselves to five-plus months a year away from the job. Among the few that do are some that interact a little or a lot with state lawmaking. Legislators tend to believe that the conflicts of interest that arise from such positions are matters that need not be avoided, but can be managed via recusal from certain votes or public disclosure. After all, they say, they deserve to make a living.

That they do, as long as Minnesota sticks with a part-time, low-salary Legislature.But legislators also need a higher level of conflict awareness than Gottwalt exhibited Thursday morning and than many;others have shown through the years. Further, legislative leaders need to police the kind of conflicts that erode public trust in legislative loyalties. If Gottwalt had not resigned Thursday night, he should have expected to be removed from the committees that control state health care policies and funding.

 

 

 

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