Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz is pushing to make lawmakers subject to the same open-records laws that cover the rest of state government, an idea the top Republican in the Legislature opposes.
Walz raised the possibility of new legislation in a letter Monday to Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, while also highlighting concerns about a new Senate Republican Caucus web page soliciting “whistleblower” complaints from state employees.
Walz said he welcomes legislative oversight of state government, but argued that creating a party mechanism for reporting government waste, fraud or abuse would be a “departure from neutral investigatory principles” and would lack the protections of the Minnesota Data Practices Act, which governs access to government records.
Walz’s letter also indicated that he and Gazelka had spoken previously about covering the Legislature under the requirements of the open-records law, and suggested that future talks are in the offing.
“I am grateful for your willingness to have an additional discussion about passing legislation next session subjecting the State Legislature to the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act (MGDPA),” Walz wrote.
But Gazelka said Tuesday that he does not recall talking with Walz about opening the Legislature to those requirements. He added that while he is willing to talk about any issue with the governor, he does not favor extending the open-records law to the Legislature.
“I personally would be opposed to that. I think constituents need to feel like they can voice their concerns and not have that be public,” he said.
The Legislature has long exempted itself from open-government requirements, keeping the bulk of communications, records and other data hidden from the public. The lack of transparency came into sharp focus in May amid the closed-door budget negotiations between the governor and legislative leaders, a process that is widely referred to as the “cone of silence.”
Past attempts to make lawmakers’ dealings less opaque have gained little traction. But some advocates said that the governor’s support would be critical.
“Without the governor, I think you’ve got not much chance. ... The governor taking a strong stance on this could really push the Legislature forward,” said Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, who has made a number of largely unsuccessful attempts to make more of the legislative process public.
A bill Marty introduced in the last session would have required end-of-session budget negotiations between the governor and lawmakers to be open to the public. Those deliberations were largely conducted behind closed doors in a series of meetings between Walz, Gazelka and House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park.
Leaders from both political parties tend to oppose open-records changes, Marty said, adding, “They feel they have more power when things are done in secret.”
But some lawmakers argue that exposing lawmakers to open-records laws could stifle the flow of ideas or discourage some constituents from bringing forward their concerns.
Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, cautioned that lawmakers receive information from people about mental health, substance abuse, sexual assaults and other personal issues. He opposes opening the Legislature to the Data Practices Act and said even having a conversation about that would make constituents more hesitant to reach out to legislators.
“It sounds really good on a bumper sticker, but once you research it for 30 seconds you realize this is a horrible idea,” Garofalo said. “People have an expectation of confidentiality when they are reaching out to legislators with problems.”
Correspondence between individuals and elected officials is currently private under the Data Practices Act, unless the sender or recipient makes it public.
Minnesota’s Legislature is not alone in avoiding open-government rules. Congress exempts itself from the federal Freedom of Information Act. But many other states, including Wisconsin, follow open meetings and open-records requirements.
Walz’s letter to Gazelka suggested that the Legislature take up the idea when in convenes next February.
The bulk of the letter, however, focused on the Senate Republican Caucus’s newly created “state government employee whistleblower portal” that the Republicans posted on their website. Walz called it “politically motivated” and asked the Republicans to remove the portal.
Both he and Minnesota Management and Budget Commissioner Myron Frans wrote letters raising concerns about the lack of laws or internal controls around the privacy and security of the comments submitted through the site. They also noted the approach might confuse whistleblowers.
Gazelka said he has talked with nonpartisan Senate legal counsel and the legislative auditor about the web page.
“I feel like we’re in the right place with trying to work, where we can, together to deal with waste, fraud and abuse, and also asserting the fact that the legislative branch is an equal but separate branch of government and has the same responsibilities to provide oversight,” Gazelka said.
The Senate Republicans’ website states that comments shared through the portal will be confidential and that people’s identities or the nature of their complaints will not be disclosed unless they allow it.
“Your submission will NOT be public information, nor is it subject to the Minnesota Data Practices Act,” the website states.
That promise is problematic, according to Frans’ letter, because if a data breach occurs, tipsters who report problems would be left without the protections of the Data Practices Act. The current law would allow them to bring a lawsuit and recover damages.