The Minnesota DFL is calling for an ethics probe into why State Sen. Julianne Ortman’s campaign cut a check to a onetime rival in exchange for his endorsement at the Republican Party’s state convention last May.
Ortman, R-Chanhassen, confirmed this week to Star Tribune blogger Michael Brodkorb that her U.S. Senate campaign wrote a check to a former competitor. Ortman, who failed to gain the party’s endorsement and eventually dropped out of the race, said the payment was unauthorized by the campaign.
On Friday, DFL Chairman Ken Martin called for an ethics complaint to be filed with the Minnesota Senate.
“Sen. Ortman admits to a wrongdoing that brings dishonor to the Senate,” Martin said. “She should be held accountable by her colleagues.”
Ortman did not respond to messages seeking comment.
Fellow Republican U.S. Senate candidate Monti Moreno first confirmed the payments in an interview with Brodkorb last month, saying he was approached by Ortman’s campaign manager, Andy Parrish, at the convention in Rochester. Moreno said Parrish offered to pay off up to $5,000 in campaign debt in exchange for the endorsement. Moreno accepted and said he later received a check for $400 from the Ortman campaign. Another U.S. Senate candidate, Philip Parrish (No relation to Andy Parrish) also confirmed to Brodkorb that he was approached, but that he turned down the offer.
Businessman Mike McFadden went on to win the endorsement.
Ortman reiterated to Brodkorb this week that the "check was not authorized by me or by the campaign." Ortman added that "the matter has been referred to [a Federal Election Commission] Compliance expert."
Earlier this year, Minnesota Senate Republicans filed ethics complaints against DFL state Sens. Jeff Hayden and Bobby Joe Champion for alleged abuses of power. A panel failed to resolve the complaints, which are now postponed indefinitely.
In his statement, Martin pressed Senate Minority Leader David Hann to back any complaints filed against Ortman.
“Sen. Hann has a track record of being concerned about the integrity of the Senate and actions of members of the Senate majority,” Martin said. “We’ll see if that concern includes the conduct of his caucus members, especially one who admits to questionable campaign practices or if Hann was using the Senate Ethics Committee only to score political points.”
Senate Republican Caucus spokeswoman Katie Fulkerson said Hann would not comment.
State House Republicans have yanked Rep. Jean Wagenius, a Minneapolis DFLer and longtime ally of environmentalists, from her longstanding spot as lead House Democrat on the committee that oversees state spending on environment and natural resources.
Republicans take over the House majority when the new legislative session convenes on Jan. 6. On Thursday, the GOP released its list of 2015-16 committee assignments. Wagenius previously chaired the environmenta and natural resources commitee in 2013-14, chaired it in previous sessions as well, and served on it since she first entered the House in 1987.
A spokesman for House Democrats said when the caucus submitted its committee wishlists to incoming Republican Speaker Kurt Daudt, that it was made clear Wagenius was the party's choice to be the top DFLer on what will now be called the Environment and Natural Resources Policy and Finance Committee. Instead, she was excluded from the committee altogether.
Rep. Paul Thissen, the House DFL leader, described it as "unprecedented" that the minority party would not get to choose its own committee lead. "Rep. Wagenius is in her 15th term and is the 4th most senior woman in the Minnesota House," Thissen said in a press release. He went on to suggest it was because "House Republicans don't take climate change or protecting Minnesota's water and air seriously."
A spokeswoman for Daudt said he was attempting geographical balance on the committee assignments, and noted the committee already has several members from Minneapolis and St. Paul. In place of Wagenius will be Rep. Jeanne Poppe, a Democrat from Austin.
"We have put together a committee structure that is balanced and we look forward to rolling up our sleeves and getting to work on problems Minnesotans care about," Daudt said in a statement. He was not made available to answer follow-up questions.
The 21-member committee will have 12 members from otustate Minnesota, six from the Twin Cities suburbs and three from Minneapolis and St. Paul.
Wagenius was first elected in 1986 to represent a south Minneapolis House district that's centered around the Lake Nokomis area. She has associated herself with a number of environmental causes, including efforts a decade ago to ban the controversial herbicide atrazine. She once described herself as a "Mother Earth feminist" in a campaign bio, a term the state Republican Party later mocked in a press release.
When Democrats took over the House two years ago, Wagenius's environment committee was expanded to also oversee state spending on agriculture. That led to howls from Republicans who were upset that a Minneapolis Democrat and environmentalist would be controlling distribution of money for ag programs. At the time, Democrats also denied several seats to several Republican members who wanted to be on the committee; but they did honor the GOP request to make Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, the Republican lead.
McNamara said Thursday that he did not ask for Wagenius to be taken off the committee. "That was the speaker's call," he said, referring to Daudt. Asked about his relationship with Wagenius, McNamara said: "She's got her views and I've got mine. I think we've got a lot of respect for each other."
The Minnesota House has unveiled its committee assignments for the 2015 and 2016 legislative sessions.
The coming session led by the Republican-controlled House will see 26 committees. The largest among them is Ways & Means, with 28 members. The smallest committee is ethics, with four members. The complete list of committee assignments and schedules is below.
The DFL caucus swiftly responded to the assignments. In a statement, incoming House Minority Leader Paul Thissen called the decision to remove Rep. Jean Wagenius, DFL-Minneapolis, from the House Environment and Natural Resources Commitee. Wagenius, who is in her 15th term, has served on the Environment Committee since 1987 and has chaired the committee. She was the DFL's designated minority lead for that committee, Thissen said.
"Just because House Republicans don't take climate change or protecting Minnesota's water and air seriously doesn't mean that the majority of Minnesotans agree with them." Thissen said in a statement. "Rep. Jean Wagenius is a woman of great integrity who would bring much needed experience to the important work of the environment committee.”
An alliance of green energy, labor and faith groups said Thursday they would mount a campaign to get Minnesota to increase its current renewable energy standard, which requires that at least 15 percent of the energy sold in the state come from renewable resources.
The group, which calls itself the Minnesota Clean Energy and Jobs Campaign, wants that increased to 40 percent by 2030.
“Energy efficiency creates jobs that people can live on,” said Justin Fay, the manager of the campaign. “Construction jobs doing home or business retrofits and designing and manufacturing the components needed to make our buildings more energy efficient all will create good jobs for workers.”
Former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a Republican, signed the 15-percent renewable standard into law in 2007. Under that law, Minnesota's current standard will raise to 25 percent by 2025.
It has since become a target for some Republicans who call it an unneeded burden on energy production, and the alliance may have trouble getting support from the House’s new Republican majority.
Still, members of the new coalition said they saw the potential to build bipartisan support, and noted that a number of the state’s most prominent utilities are already exceeding the 15-percent standard.
Top priorities on the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce’s 2015 legislative wish list include tax relief for small and midsize businesses, rolling back automatic increases in the minimum wage to account for inflation, and adjusting how transportation infrastructure is funded in the state.
The chamber’s policy team on Thursday laid out priorities in five areas, including tax relief, education and workforce development, health care, transportation and labor and management.
Tax Reform: Chamber officials say Minnesota ranks nearly last in a survey of tax-friendly states. Tax relief for small businesses—which employ more than half of Minnesotans in the private sector--could promote economic growth, they say. Eliminating the taxing of “phantom income,” or income that is taxed even if it is reinvested in the business, is a start, said Beth Strinden Kadoun, the Chamber’s director of tax and fiscal policy. Other proposals include reducing Minnesota’s corporate tax rate, which at 9.8 percent is third highest in the nation, and enhancing the state’s research and development tax credit. Although Minnesota was the first state in the nation to pass such a tax credit, the rate has since been surpassed by other states.
Transportation: The Chamber ‘s goals for transportation funding—the likely hallmark issue of the 2015 legislative session, include passing a 10-year funding plan to improve the state’s infrastructure, and funding it through more than fuel taxes, vehicle registration and the motor vehicle sales tax. Bentley Graves, the Chamber’s director of Health & Transportation Policy, said 33 states use money from the general fund to pay for roads and bridges, and that Minnesota should be among them.
“We’re not suggesting that any dedicated sources go away, we’re talking about how to get additional investment in the system,” he said.
Other ideas include “value capture” mechanisms, which would place more of the cost of road construction projects on property owners who would benefit most.
“The idea is to have a very close tie between those who pay and those who benefit, rather than just a blanket approach,” Graves said.
Chamber representatives will argue against a wholesale gas tax increase, but wouldn’t say directly whether they were opposed to a standard gas tax increase.
Labor Management: Increases in the state’s minimum wage should be decided by the Legislature, not set to automatically increase, said Ben Gerber, the chamber’s manager of Energy and Labor/Management Policy. Gerber said Minnesota will be the only state in the upper Midwest
“We see a real problem with setting things on autopilot,” Gerber said. “We elect legislators, we hold elections to put people in office to make these tough decisions, especially on an issue like the minimum wage, that legislators should be making that decision and it shouldn’t be put on an automatic index.”
While the automatic increase doesn’t take effect until 2018, Gerber said the increases could largely impact rural businesses and border communities. Minnesota is the only state in the upper Midwest with indexing and could lose business to neighboring states, he said.
Other targets include exploring ways to reduce the rising costs of the worker’s compensation system.
Education and Workforce: The chamber’s goals include ensuring access to college credit programs for all high-school students, reforming teacher tenure to allow administrators to pick their teams regardless of seniority, reforming struggling charter schools and reducing standardized testing, while requiring basic skills in reading, writing and math for graduation.
Healthcare: In Minnesota, where 80 percent of Chamber members are small businesses with less than 100 employees, the Chamber supports a state-based exchange like MNsure, Graves said. However, the organization backs reforms to increase oversight, seizing upon the expertise of business and health industry experts when governing the system and ensuring employers have as many options as possible.
Read an outline of the Chamber's goals here:
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