A ban on lobbyist gifts is making a comeback at the State Capitol.
The Minnesota House of Representatives voted 123-3 Monday to reverse a measure that had loosened the ban on free food and drink provided by lobbyists, with members of both parties arguing that their integrity is worth more than a free dinner.
The ban won’t be reinstated, however, unless the Senate passes a bill that is still awaiting its first committee hearing.
The provision passed last year allowed legislators and their staff to eat and drink for free at receptions hosted by special interest groups, as long as all 201 are invited at least five days in advance. It was the first real crack in the 19-year-old so-called gift ban, which was designed to prevent lobbyists and special interest groups from giving legislators anything of value — including meals — unless they’re giving a speech or taking questions.
Backers of that relaxation say easing what once was one of the strictest gift bans in the nation was needed to restore bipartisan camaraderie in an increasingly polarized Legislature. The law still prohibits lawmakers from accepting freebies in more exclusive gatherings.
But Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, said the cost of a meal is not a barrier for lawmakers wanting to reach across party lines.
“Big money should not set the agenda at this Capitol,” Winkler said. “It already does to a great degree and we shouldn’t pass laws that make it easier to do so.”
In a speech on the House floor Monday, Winkler reminded his fellow representatives that the measure easing gift restrictions originated with Sen. Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, and was passed near the end of the 2013 session after being attached to a campaign-finance reform bill that Winkler co-sponsored.
Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, called supporting Winkler’s repeal bill “the right thing to do — something that the people of Minnesota would like to see: legislatures encumbered to the people rather than the unions and the political action committees.”
However, he also urged the House DFL to take responsibility for the measure that never should have passed, regardless of who proposed it.
“The Democrats are in control of this body, they were last year and it’s not a particular senator’s fault,” Drazkowski said. “You guys run this place over here. I would appreciate it if the majority, instead of pointing fingers, would do the right thing and take responsibility.”
Dinner and drinks for that many lawmakers is pricey and would likely limit the number of Minnesota’s 1,354 associations represented by lobbyists that can host such gatherings. Rep. Debra Hilstrom, DFL-Brooklyn Center, said last year’s gift ban loophole once again allowed corporate lobbyists to “wine and dine” legislators at the expense of interests without the same resources.
“Regular Minnesotans can’t get the same access,” Hilstrom said. “What the Legislature did last year in upending that law was wrong.”
Reps. Carly Melin, DFL-Hibbing; David Dill, DFL-Crane Lake; and Jason Metsa, DFL-Virginia, voted against the bill. Metsa said he rarely spends his time at after work events, and if he does, he usually buys his own beer. Still, he said. “I don’t think it’s too big of a deal.”
“If your integrity can be bought” for the price of a meal, he said, “You don’t belong here.”
Abby Simons • 651-925-5043