Last Friday, the Range Association of Municipalities and Schools (RAMS) announced that State Sen. David Tomassoni (DFL-Chisholm) will be organization's new executive director.
In a Mesabi Daily News story over the weekend, Tomassoni confirmed that he would be starting the RAMS job after the end of the current legislative session. He said he would take a leave of absence from the position during subsequent sessions, during which RAMS would hire a lobbyist to perform what would otherwise be his normal duties.
Ballotpedia explains RAMS succinctly:
The Range Association of Municipalities and Schools is a government sector lobbying association. The association lobbies on behalf of public entities, and public money is used in part for this, according to the Minnesota State Auditor.
The sole function of RAMS is to advocate on behalf of small governments on the Iron Range for their specific legislative goals, while also advising them on grant applications and other administrative tasks. It's funded by the local governments and also by local iron ore production tax revenue. The outgoing director is Ron Dicklich, himself a former state senator. But unlike Dicklich, Tomassoni is going to try to hold both positions simultaneously.
Is it legal? Yes, probably. Though it shouldn't be.
Is it ethical? Absolutely not. This is a clear conflict of interest. Further, and more importantly, it's the formalization of a troubling trend in Iron Range political leadership that's been building for a generation. Who are our elected leaders? Who are the lobbyists? Are things being done for money? For friendship? For power? The earthy world of Old School Iron Range political organization had a place in the 20th Century, when workers had no allies in fighting for their rights. That tradition, however, has now been wholly coopted by monied forces to preserve monied interests.
Political watchers often lament the cozy relationship between lobbyists and elected officials. Lobbyists often seem like furniture in the offices of state legislators from both parties. We grumble when former lawmakers cash out their connections and influence as lobbyists after leaving office. Since 1980, every outgoing state senator from the Iron Range has signed on as a registered lobbyist. But what's happening here with Sen. Tomassoni essentially ends the distinction between lobbying and serving in public office.
See, Tomassoni might not be registering as a lobbyist or drawing a salary during the four and a half months of the legislative session. That would be illegal, after all! But we are being asked to believe that during the session Tomassoni is shutting off all allegiances or interest in a job that probably pays him twice his legislative salary. (Tomassoni's new salary has not been made public yet). We are asked to believe that RAMS is paying him this salary just to push around a few papers and hold meetings with city and school district leaders during the off-season. City and school leaders, citizens and Senate constituents alike are being asked to intuitively know whether Tomassoni is their Senator or the executive director of a lobbying organization when they speak with him.
All of these expectations are ridiculous, and demonstrate the unethical and unsustainable nature of this scheme.
Perhaps Tomassoni isn't planning to seek re-election in 2016? (Under these circumstances he shouldn't). Maybe he plans to do the honorable thing and resign after the session. (I doubt that). Regardless of what he thinks, however, Sen. Tomassoni should not serve in the Senate and RAMS simultaneously. He should choose whether he is a lobbyist (excuse me, "executive director of a lobbying organization") or a Senator. Frankly, it would appear he already made that decision. He just wants to draw paychecks for both.
If Tomassoni persists, the media and Senate Ethics Committee should investigate the matter. Legislation should ban this practice. The voters of the central Iron Range should let their Senator know who he really works for, and hold him accountable. This must not be allowed to slide, for it would be replicated again and again at enormous expense to the integrity of our democracy.
UPDATE: The Star Tribune's J. Patrick Coolican is covering the story and reports more details about Tomassoni's response to the criticism.