Sen. David Tomassoni of Chisholm may feel vindicated by the draft opinion on his new non-legislative job that was circulated last week, in advance of Friday's special meeting of the state Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board. Its conclusion: simply taking a job as executive director of the Range Association of Municipalities and Schools does not constitute a conflict of interest for the 20-year legislator.
But Tomassoni would be well advised to study the remainder of the draft opinion. It says that the law requires a public official to "evaluate the decisions they are required to make and the actions they are required to take as a part of their official duties" to determine whether he or his enterprise stand to benefit disproportionately from those actions, compared with similar enterprises.
If the answer is yes, the public official is obliged to publicly announce that he has a conflict of interest and to decline to participate in the decision -- that is, to recuse himself.
Tomassoni said Wednesday that he expects to recuse himself only when the Range Association itself stands to directly benefit from legislation, not when a bill would aid the schools and city governments that comprise the association.
But that narrow interpretation of the law's conflict-of-interest requirements is bound to be challenged by watchful GOP senators. They can argue that as executive director of an association whose primary purpose is lobbying the Legislature, Tomassoni will have a personal stake in how well members of that association fare at the Capitol -- even if he does no lobbying himself. They'll argue that he should step aside whenever special provisions for Range cities and schools appear in bills.
If he does, he'll be stepping aside often. Bonding bills, the tax bill, and education funding bills often contain Iron Range-specific provisions. So do bills that traverse through the environment and economic development finance committee that Tomassoni chairs. He'll be under frequent pressure to reliquish his gavel or his conference committee seat. His critics can be expected to take their case to the voters in 2016. Tomassoni should consider whether he wants to face that recurring challenge to his role -- and whether he can serve his constituents well as he does.
Tomassoni's dilemma is akin to others that arise in Minnesota's "citizen Legislature," whose members are paid the princely sum of $31,140 per year plus expenses. Most of the 201 legislators have non-legislative careers or sources of income. Often, conflicts between public and private roles are tolerated with a shrug and a quip that "they've got to make a living somehow."
But when a legislator takes charge of an organization whose purpose is to influence the Legislature -- even if he vows not to do the influencing himself -- eyebrows are raised. And rightly so.