Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, is threatening to cut the attorney general's office budget for enforcing an executive order. That's not mere "politics as usual" — it's the kind of bad faith that threatens the integrity of America's checks and balances.
Too many lawmakers, when faced with losing a vote fair and square, are not learning from the defeat and moving on. Instead, they attempt to end-run the system by hobbling the decision's oversight or enforcement.
When we elected officials take our oaths of office, we agree to a system of checks and balances and majority rule. Oversight and accountability functions ensure that when an idea wins enough votes, it will actually become reality.
We value fair play so much that we have created a system of government watchdogs to protect the integrity of the work we do together. And when it comes to watchdogs, we expect them to be honest, fearless and fiercely independent.
Or do we?
Ongoing attacks on watchdogs suggest otherwise. Whether it be by starving, muzzling or leashing, sore losers are attempting to turn our watchdogs into lap dogs.
Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison is tasked with protecting the law of the land. Executive orders are part of that law. Ellison has been highly restrained in holding establishments accountable. But when he enforced an order to pause indoor seating at bars and restaurants against the most egregious violators of the law, Senate Majority Leader Gazelka responded, "I want to remind [Ellison] that next year … the legislative branch sets his budget." And then regarding the fines, he said "… and I'm going to expect that to come out of his budget."
Sen. Gazelka has every right to disagree with the executive orders. He has every right to organize a vote to overturn those orders. He had that opportunity over and over again this year, and over and over again he lost those votes. But instead of finding solutions, he tries to starve the watchdogs by threatening to slash the AG's budget.
Though rarely as obvious as this case, starving government watchdogs is not a new tactic. Across the country, offices that ensure accountability are struggling with dwindling resources. I know this firsthand. The size of my office, the Office of the State Auditor, has been reduced by 45% since 2005, despite having the duty to oversee almost $40 billion in local government spending. A combination of funding cuts and funding that failed to keep pace with inflation severely restrains our ability to provide an effective level of examination.
If starving doesn't work, some lawmakers try to replace watchdogs with lapdogs. The most recent example was the surprise removal of the commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry in August by the Minnesota Senate. It was clear that this was an attempt by the Senate GOP to pressure Gov. Tim Walz to end the peacetime emergency. This action sends the message that merely doing your job can cause you to be removed. Fear like that can impact a watchdog's independence, or at least the public's perception of their ability to do thorough investigations and enforce the law.
As bad as all that, the lies and conspiracy theories about our elections may be the most egregious assault on our democratic systems. These attacks are seemingly directed at secretaries of state and election officials. However, people who cannot accept the results of the vote are sowing distrust that can lead to fewer people voting. Depressing election turnout means the muzzle is actually being put on the ultimate watchdogs — the voters.
How do we protect the independence of our oversight professionals? Lawmakers need to honor the results of a vote even when they lose, not bully the officials who implement that decision. Confirmation decisions need to be based on the merits of the candidate, not politics. Budgets of offices entrusted with protecting the public need to be tied to the magnitude of their oversight responsibility, not left to erode into impotence.
Minnesotans need to know that there are those in government who will watch over their interests and speak out when their interests are being betrayed. It's time to give our watchdogs back their bark.
Julie Blaha, a Democrat, is state auditor of Minnesota.