When elected governor in 2018, Tim Walz inherited outdated statutes purporting to regulate disclosures by lobbyists, political campaigns and public officials. He also inherited a Republican-controlled state Senate with no appetite for increased transparency.
As a former member of the entity charged with overseeing Minnesota's disclosure laws, I understand that the regulated are rarely enthusiastic about enhancing rules they must comply with. Yet the failure of the Republican-controlled Senate and the DFL governor to address deficiencies in our existing disclosure laws is concerning.
Minnesota's disclosure statutes have not been meaningfully revised for decades. In the 2018 S.W.A.M.P (States with Anti-Corruption Measures for Public Officials) rankings of state anti-corruption laws, Minnesota came in 37th. In a 2015 report by the Center for Public Integrity, Minnesota received a D+ grade regarding transparency, accountability and anti-corruption measures. In a 2014 ranking of states regarding independent expenditure disclosures by FollowtheMoney.org, Minnesota was in the bottom half.
Walz brought to the governor's office a strong record of raising the ethics bar and promoting greater transparency. In campaigning for Congress, he decried the role of dark money in our politics. As a congressman, Walz supported the STOCK Act (Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge), prohibiting elected officials from securities trading using information obtained in their official capacities. He also backed the Government by People Act, promoting greater public financing of campaigns, and amendments to the Lobbyist Disclosure Act regulating campaign contributions by lobbyists.
Given this record, and his electioneering forthrightness regarding his personal finances, supporters of Walz's gubernatorial candidacy — myself included — expected that he would prioritize bringing greater sunshine to the state.
Perhaps the pandemic, issues surrounding racial justice and the budget have absorbed Walz's attention. Or perhaps he concluded that clashing with Republican senators over greater transparency was too difficult. Whatever the reason, no meaningful improvement to lobbyist, public official and political campaign disclosure laws has occurred during the governor's watch.
The bipartisan Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board (CFB), on which I served, is charged with oversight of Minnesota's statutes regulating disclosures by lobbyists, campaigns and public officials. For the past three legislative sessions, the CFB —along with citizen groups like Common Cause Minnesota, Clean Elections Minnesota and the Minnesota League of Women Voters — have pushed to upgrade the statutes. Proposed changes include requiring lobbyists to clearly report the subject matter of their activities, enhancing the reporting of economic interests by public officials, and expanding the definition of "express advocacy" to ensure greater disclosure regarding independent expenditures. Furthermore, certain House members pushed for legislation improving our public campaign financing system as well as disclosure laws.
These initiatives received little traction. The governor did not throw the weight of his office behind these legislative efforts, and Republican senators expressed no interest in amending campaign laws — with one exception. Contrary to CFB prior guidance, the Senate did pass a bill allowing senators to use up to $3,000 of campaign committee money to install security systems in their homes.
Despite the governor acknowledging the CFB oversight as "critical to ensuring ethical and transparent elections," the CFB itself has been largely neglected. For the past four months, the CFB could not function due to lack of a quorum. While much blame rests with Republican senators whose commitment to inertia allowed appointments to lapse, some fault rests with the governor's tardiness in making CFB appointments and failure to drive those appointments through the Legislature.
Further, there has been no push to modernize Minnesota's campaign financing laws in order to give average contributors greater voice. In an October 2018 Humphrey School of Public Affairs report entitled "Transparency and Campaign Spending in Minnesota," Profs. Kathryn Pearson and Larry Jacobs analyzed the advantage Democrats were enjoying from independent expenditures in the 2018 election. They observed that advantage to be largely driven by the flow of independent expenditures benefiting the Walz campaign and noted that those expenditures made up 54% of Walz's overall support. Shortly after the 2018 election, the Star Tribune reported that $11.8 million in independent expenditures spent supporting Walz surpassed by nearly $9 million independent expenditures benefiting his opponent.
Cynics suggest it is naïve to think elected officials will reform the campaign financing system and disclosure laws under which they got elected. Since their opposition to improved transparency and our existing public financing system has been consistent, Minnesotans cannot look to Republicans to initiate change. However, even with the headwinds of an intransigent Senate, one hopes that in a second term, issues of meaningful transparency regarding lobbyists, public officials and political campaigns would move up in Gov. Walz's queue.
Robert Moilanen is a retired attorney who previously served as a Democratic member of the CFB through appointments by Govs. Mark Dayton and Tim Walz.