Kaohly Vang Her, policy director for St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter, so liked the mayor’s idea to give every capital city newborn $50 for a college savings plan that Kaohly Vang Her, state representative, authored a bill to help pay for it.
That’s a potential problem, say authorities on government ethics. Because Carter is Her’s boss, he could show her favor — or withhold it — based on what she might accomplish as a legislator, said Annastacia Belladonna-Carrera, executive director of Common Cause Minnesota.
“We are talking about someone she reports to, who determines her salary, performance, whether or not she keeps the job,” Belladonna-Carrera said, adding that Her should have recused herself and had someone else carry the legislation. “It’s a [legal] cloud of grayness.”
Her, a first-term DFLer from St. Paul, defended her advocacy of the savings plan as good for St. Paul children. It’s no different, she said, than other legislators — farmers, teachers, doctors and business people — promoting their professional interests at the Capitol.
“There is no conflict [of interest]. In both jobs, my job is to advocate for the constituents of St. Paul,” Her said last week. “Why not have a person who knows and who cares about these issues work on the legislation that addresses them?”
The mayor made the college savings accounts one of his first priorities, and commissioned a task force in May 2018 to study the issue. Her was already working as Carter’s policy director when she was elected to the state House later that year.
The bill Her and fellow state Rep. Dave Pinto, DFL-St. Paul, authored calls for the state to provide matching grant funds to the city of St. Paul for college savings accounts for every child born in St. Paul in 2020 and 2021.
Her supports the program, she said, because it helps families who may not have considered higher education to start building a foundation to fund it. She would like to see it go statewide.
“I was not asked [by Carter] to carry this bill,” she said. “I asked to carry it because I believe in this with every fiber of my being. This is about opportunity.”
On New Year’s Day, Carter officially launched St. Paul’s College Bound program by visiting newborns at a St. Paul hospital. The college-savings program costs about $1.2 million annually — funded with $250,000 state grants each of the next two years and with more than $1 million annually in additional state, city and philanthropic cash and in-kind support.
Some Republican lawmakers immediately questioned the program, and the dual roles of its chief sponsor at the Legislature.
“This is a situation where [Her] is literally carrying the legislative priorities of her boss at City Hall,” state Rep. Mary Franson, an Alexandria Republican, said in an e-mail. “If a legislator was working for a major corporation, a nonprofit or any other employer and was carrying bills directly that were not only directly related to their employer, but the stated policy priorities of its leader, people would be up in arms. It’s no different just because her job happens to also be in city government.”
Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles who studies ethics in politics, said Her doesn’t appear to personally benefit from steering state funds to the college savings program. But the issue highlights a more complex web of ethical issues that could arise because of her employer/employee relationship with the mayor.
“What happens if what the mayor wants is not [the best thing] for her constituents?” Levinson said. “Would she stand up to him, if her job and livelihood depend on keeping the mayor happy?”
Asked to comment on those concerns, Carter released a statement Monday: “In her first session as a legislator, Representative Her fought for and won critical resources for the children and families she serves. This fact is not only evidence of her effectiveness, it’s the entire point of representative government.”
Similar college-savings programs have been launched in cities such as St. Louis and San Francisco and are intended to fuel higher education aspirations and spur families to supplement those accounts. Carter said a child with more than $1 in a college savings account is three times as likely to attend college.
State Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, panned the program’s use of savings accounts instead of investments with a better rate of return. If Her and Carter want to help teach financial literacy to families of modest means, he said, this plan isn’t the way to do it.
“There are so many things wrong with this proposal,” he said. “I like Mayor Carter. He’s a good guy. But good guys sometimes have bad ideas — and this is a really bad idea.”
Garofalo said the savings accounts’ interest rate of about 1% annually — less than the rate of inflation — ensures that participating families will lose money over time. Instead of putting state money into savings accounts, he suggested the Legislature return to the idea of matching low-income families’ contributions into Minnesota’s 529 tax-deferred college savings plan with its higher rate of return.
On Twitter last week, Franson fired a salvo at Her’s sponsorship of state funding for the St. Paul plan.
“Must be nice for the Mayor of Saint Paul to have someone who works for him also push his agenda through the Legislature as an elected official,” she tweeted.
To which Her replied in a tweet of her own: “Would [love] to sit down & answer any questions. It was my honor to carry this bill so that every child has the same opportunity for education as I did. I only had $1k saved when I went. That small investment laid the foundation for what I was able to accomplish & become in life.”
As of late last week, Her said, she and Franson had not talked.