Democratic Congressman Rep. Keith Ellison is urging the U.S. Labor Department to step up enforcement against wage theft.
Ellison and two Democratic colleagues wrote to Labor Secretary Thomas Perez this week, asking him to do more to address complaints of companies that hold federal contracts paying workers below the minimum wage, demanding off-the-clock work and denying time-and-a-half pay for overtime.
The lawmakers also asked Perez to make data on wage theft more accessible to federal agencies so they can make better decisions about which companies deserve contracts.
A Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee study conducted last year found that companies that hold federal contracts accounted for nearly half of the total fines assessed by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in 2012.
Ellison has emerged as one of Congress' most vocal advocates for federal workers.
President Obama signed an executive order in February that established a minimum wage of $10.10 per hour for employees on new government contracts after Ellison and other progressive leaders pressed Obama on the issue for most of 2013.
The White House is also developing new rules that would expand the number of employees eligible for overtime pay.
On Tuesday the U.S. Supreme Court struck down federal limits on how much an individual can give to campaigns in aggregate, which could allow high dollar donors to spread their largess to a wider swath of political hopefuls and parties.
Unlike the federal system, which essentially limited how many donations in total a donor could give, Minnesota law does not place restrictions on the number of campaigns to which a high-dollar donor can contribute.
Current state law allows donors to give massive amounts to parties or PACs and allows donors to spread their donations to as many candidates or party committees as they wish.
"We’ve never limited the amount that an individual donor can give to a whole group of candidates," said Gary Goldsmith, executive director of the Minnesota campaign finance board. "We don’t limit at all the amount of money that an individual can give to a party."
Minnesota does place limits on how much candidates can accept from certain types of donors but Goldsmith said those restrictions were not considered by the court.
Other states, including Wisconsin, do have laws to limit the aggregate donations a contributor can spend in an election cycle, according to the National Institute of Money in State Politics. Those nine states' laws may be directly impacted by the federal decision.
The Supreme Court did not overturn the concept of limiting what a campaign can accept from a donor. Currently, donors are limited to giving $5,200 per candidate per election cycle to federal candidates. Minnesota law puts similar restrictions on what an individual can give to a single candidate.
The court's decision will have a much more far reaching impact on federal campaigns and parties, including those from Minnesota.
DFL chair Ken Martin said the ruling allows parties to tap donors for funds, even if those donors had already given to multiple other parties or candidates.
"It has a big impact on state parties," said Martin.
Currently, donors are limited to giving $123,200 for 2013 and 2014 in total to all federal campaigns. That limit made federal cash difficult to raise, Martin said. The Minnesota parties were not limited to what they could raise from individuals in their state committees.
After the decision, Minnesota parties will be able to raise more federal money -- up to $10,000 per individual -- from donors whether or not those individuals had already given to many other federal committees.
"That is hugely helpful to state parties," Martin said. He said the lifting of the overall cap will mean that parties can be more involved in helping federal candidates "up and down the ballot here in Minnesota."
Minnesota Republican Party chair Keith Downey said the decision may mean candidates and parties will be able to raise more.
"It will serve to direct campaign spending toward those who are closest to the public and most publicly accountable for their campaign activities. It also underscores the importance of both transparency and the protection of political speech, which are so important in our political process," Downey said.
Several donors with Minnesota ties have contributed enough in 2013 that they could have bumped up against the limit the court struck down.
According to a Star Tribune analysis of data from the Center for Responsive Politics, John Grundhofer, former chairman of U.S. Bancorps, donated $142,200 through the end of last year and Patricia Grundhofer, whose is listed on federal documents as the director of the John F. Grundhofer Charitable Foundation, donated $125,600. They gave primarily to non-Minnesota Republican committees.
Stanley Hubbard, head of Hubbard Broadcasting and a a frequent donor to state as well as federal causes, gave nearly $100,000 to federal committees last year alone. He said that every election cycle he gets many calls soliciting donations and he has to refuse them because he is maxed out.
Hubbard has a simple prediction for what will happen now that the court rejected the overall limits: "They are going to start calling."
Star Tribune data editor Glenn Howatt contributed to this report.
Democratic Congressman Keith Ellison wants Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to terminate all the Defense Department’s contracts with Russia's state-owned arms dealer.
Ellison joined a bipartisan group of lawmakers who sent a letter to Hagel, making the case the President Obama’s executive order on sanctions against Russia gives him the power he needs to cut ties with Rosoboronexport, the Russian arms dealer.
"Given Russia's recent actions that violate the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, including its support of the illegal referendum for Crimean separation, we strongly urge you to terminate these contracts," the letter reads in part.
Facing pressure from Congress, the Pentagon abandoned plans in November to buy another 15 of the Russian Mi-17s from Rosoboronexport for Afghan defense forces, but under existing contracts, helicopters and spare parts are still being purchased, the lawmakers said.
Earlier this week, President Obama announced sanctions on several Russian and Ukrainian officials. He expanded the scope of that presidential order to permit the freezing of assets of individuals who "operate in the arms or related materiel sector in Russia."
Ellison’s letter quoted Obama’s executive order, in which he wrote that Russia’s actions “undermine democratic processes and institutions in Ukraine; threaten its peace, security stability, sovereignty, and territorial integrity; and contribute to the misappropriation of its assets, and thereby constitute an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States.”
“We agree and accordingly strongly urge you to cancel [the] contracts,” the letter continues.
The Defense Department did not immediately comment on the letter.
Six of the seven Democrats in Minnesota’s congressional delegation are among the House and Senate members pressuring President Obama to sign an executive order protecting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans from workplace discrimination.
All told, 195 members of Congress signed the letter, including U.S. Sens. Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar and U.S. Reps. Keith Ellison, Betty McCollum, Rick Nolan and Tim Walz signed the letter; Democratic congressman Collin Peterson did not.
Obama has the ability to ban employment discrimination by government contractors.
“Issuing an executive order prohibiting discrimination against LGBT workers in federal contracts would build on the significant progress for LGBT rights made during your time as President and would further your legacy as a champion for LGBT equality. We urge you to act now to prevent irrational, taxpayer-funded workplace discrimination against LGBT Americans,” the letter reads.
Congressional legislation would apply to all employers. The proposed Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) has passed the Democratic-controlled Senate, but the legislation has stalled in the Republican-led House.
No Republicans signed on to the letter asking Obama to issue an executive order.
White House officials would prefer to see Congress pass ENDA, since executive action wouldn't protect all LGBT workers.
Ellison, a member of the U.S. House LGBT Equality Caucus, will moderate a panel discussion on transgender concerns, issues of inequality and LGBT youth experiences at 5 p.m. central standard time today at the Fridley Community Center.
Republican U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen is cautiously backing a sweeping House Republican plan to overhaul the nation’s tax laws.
Rolled out Wednesday, the proposal would end a number of popular tax breaks to help pay for lower overall tax rates.
Paulsen is Minnesota’s lone member of Congress on the Ways and Means Committee, the Republican-led House of Representatives’ tax-writing panel.
“No plan is perfect. But, it’s time to end the status quo and fix a broken tax code … that is too costly, too complex, and takes too much time to comply with,” Paulsen said in a statement. “We need a tax code that promotes savings, investment, achievement, innovation, and hard work. This draft proposal provides real solutions to create a healthy economy.”
Ways and Means Committee chair Dave Camp’s plan would drop the top income tax rate from 39.6 percent to 25 percent and would reduce the number of income tax brackets from seven to two.
The plan would eliminate or reduce popular tax breaks for medical expenses, moving expenses, child care and energy-efficient homes, along with slashing the mortgage interest deduction for homes worth a half-million dollars or more.
In exchange, the plan would increase the child tax credit would and consolidate a number of tax breaks for education expenses.
U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison panned the plan, arguing that it does little to address the nation’s income inequality.
Ellison said tax reform should “stop government spending that only benefits the wealthy and increase spending that supports working families, the poor and seniors.”
The proposal “hurts working people and their families, and expands loopholes that big companies already use to avoid paying taxes. It puts a greater burden on individual taxpayers and helps profitable corporations pay even less back to the country that made their profits possible,” Ellison said in a statement.
The issue is likely to stall in Congress in this midterm election year.