House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, on Friday criticized two Republican House members and disputed their explanation for why a political tracker was kicked out of a public legislative meeting on property taxes earlier this week.
Thissen said Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, improperly asked a tracker for a progressive group to leave their meeting Tuesday in Burnsville and that Rep. Roz Peterson, R-Lakeville "backed him up." The meeting, held in Peterson's district, is part of an ongoing series of listening sessions on property taxes organized by Drazkowski, chair of a committee on property taxes and local government.
Drazkowski said Wednesday and again Friday that space was tight at the small Burnsville coffee and wine bar where the meeting was held. "It was a very small room," he said. "As people filed in... it was clear to me we were going to reach or exceed capacity of the room."
Burnsville resident Jim Elwell, who attended the meeting and witnessed the exchange between Drazkowski and the tracker, disputed that account. In an interview with the Star Tribune, Elwell, a DFL activist, said he remembered the GOP lawmaker told the tracker to leave because the meeting was private. He also said the room was about two-thirds full.
"The assertion that I said that it wasn't a public meeting -- I don't recall saying that," Drazkowski said.
Drazkowski in an email also said Peterson "was not aware that I was going to ask him to leave, nor did she ask me to do it." Thissen's remarks about Peterson's involvement are "100% false," he wrote.
Elwell corroborated that and said Peterson was not involved in asking the tracker to leave the event.
In an emailed statement, Peterson did not address Thissen's comments but said: "I look forward to holding many more constituent meetings to gather feedback and hear concerns from families about property taxes, growing jobs, and other issues on the minds of residents of Burnsville and Lakeville."
Billed as informal listening sessions, the meetings attracted criticism on the House floor last week from Thissen, who said they raised questions about transparency. He asked Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, to clarify whether official business would be conducted. Daudt said the listening sessions were informal even though other committee members would attend and that no official business would be conducted.
He reiterated that criticism in a Friday news conference. "I don't know which is worse -- whether the fact that they to continue to want to hide these property tax hearings or not telling the truth," he said.
Drazkowski said future meetings would be held at larger venues and they would be public.
This post has been updated to include a statement from Peterson and emailed comments from Drazkowski.
Photo: House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, addresses reporters at a Friday news conference. (Glen Stubbe/Star Tribune)
House Commerce Committee heard and advanced two bills that would curtail the Minnesota State Lottery's foray into innovative forms of State Lottery gambling, such as at the gas pump, ATMs and online.
The two bills, authored by GOP Reps. Greg Davids and Tim Sanders, were similar to legislation passed last year by wide bipartisan majorities in both houses but vetoed by Gov. Mark Dayton.
The legislation seeks to restore legislative branch prerogative after lawmakers perceived the State Lottery moving into new gambling without legislative approval.
"I think we have 'lottery gone wild,'" Davids said. "And I think we need to be clear that the Legislature will decide what we're gonna do."
Several anti-gambling activists testified that the easier access provided by the new forms of gambling were dangerous and could lead to higher rates of addiction.
Minnesota State Lottery Executive Director Ed Van Petten said he it was never his intention to "usurp the authority of the Legislature," and that lottery officials had "learned our lesson." He touted the hundreds of millions of dollars of lottery proceeds that have gone to state programs, and especially environmental programs, while opposing the legislation and offering compromise language.
Alliance for a Better Minnesota, a progressive political organization, said its political tracker was improperly kicked out of a public legislative meeting in Burnsville on property taxes organized by Rep. Steve Drazkowski, a Republican from Mazeppa.
Drazkowski, chair of the House Committee on Property Tax and Local Government Finance Division, however said the reason the tracker was kicked out was because there was not enough space at the Burnsville restaurant where the meeting was hosted.
"These events are always open to the public, but unfortunately space was tight at the Burnsville gathering," he said in a statement. "In the future, we will look to hold these listening sessions at venues that are able to accommodate much larger crowds.”
Emily Bisek, spokeswoman for the progressive group, said that the tracker, who was carrying video recording equipment, was not told the problem was a lack of space. She said Drazkowski told the group's tracker that the event was not public.
Drazkowski has organized listening sessions throughout the state seeking public comments on property taxes.
Billed as informal listening sessions, the meetings last week attracted criticism from Minority Leader Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, on the House floor who said they raised questions about transparency and asked Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, to clarify whether official business would be conducted.
Daudt said the listening sessions were informal even though other committee members would attend and that no official business would be conducted.
Two meetings, though, were later made official, according to the committee's calendar. Those meetings were Thursday in Stewartville and Saturday in Albert Lea. Minutes from those meetings were approved Wednesday morning and will be posted publicly, a spokesman for the House GOP caucus said.
Details of the Burnsville meeting, sponsored by newly-elected Rep. Roz Peterson, R-Lakeville, were distributed from Peterson's official email account and described the meeting as a "Property Tax Hearing."
A request for an interview with Peterson and Drazkowski was declined.
Republicans leading the Minnesota House have established a new legislative subcommittee that's charged with delivering oversight of the Metropolitan Council, a municipal body with wide jurisdiction in the Twin Cities area that has frequently been the target of Republican criticism.
The new Subcommittee on Metropolitan Council Accountability and Transparency will be chaired by Rep. Linda Runbeck, R-Circle Pines. Last October, Runbeck called the council an "unelected, unaccountable board" that's "not responsible to any authority but its own."
The Met Council is comprised of gubernatorial appointees from districts throughout the seven-county metro area, and which has a hand in setting transportation, land-use and wastewater policies and programs. The agency has been a major player in the construction of light rail lines, including the current push to develop the new Southwest line from Minneapolis to Eden Prairie.
"We are forming this subcommittee to hold the Met Council accountable and ensure they are meeting the needs of people in the metro area," Speaker Kurt Daudt said. "This unelected board has grown more powerful over the decades, and legislators want to ensure that the Met Council is listening to the needs of all its constituents both in the cities and suburbs, providing the services for which they were given authority."
The panel will be comprised of seven members, four Republicans and three Democrats who all hail from areas covered by the Met Council.
Recently, Gov. Mark Dayton appointed Adam Duininck, a Met Council member and DFL political operative, to be the council's new chairman. A separate legislative proposal recently introduced by Sen. David Osmek, R-Mound, would give communities under Met Council jurisdiction more involvement in the process of approving Met Council members. Similar proposals are likely to be considered by the new House committee.
Duininck said Wednesday that House Republicans let him know the new subcommittee was in the works. He said he was open to discussions about boosting Met Council accountability, but also warned that an entity like the council, by its nature, is often a target of criticism.
"I would just say there is oftentimes tension between local governments and a regional planning body," Duininck said.
A fight over Legacy Amendment spending broke out in the open today in a key House committee.
House Environment and Natural Resources Committee Republicans overrode the recommendation of Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council and moved conservation money requested by White Earth Nation to Department of Natural Resources wetlands enhancement.
White Earth Nation has applied for $2.2 million for 2,000 acres of forest, riparian corridors and meadows to protect the Wild Rice River. The public, regardless of tribal affiliation, could use the land for hunting and other recreation.
The land is currently for sale and in private hands, and White Earth Nation fears development.
Rep. Steve Green, R-Fosston, offered the amendment to move the money. He said the amendment was not intended as an attack on White Earth Nation, of which he said he is a member. Rather, he said, the continued acquisition of lands by the public in places like Clearwater County is a financial burden for counties and schools and other public entities because it takes the land off the tax rolls.
Democrats objected, but the amendment to H.F. 181 passed on a mostly party line vote.
*Updated to reflect the money will go to DNR.