Sen. John Marty knows his bill calling for more openness at the Legislature isn’t going anywhere this year. He introduced it at Friday’s special session anyway, just to make a point.
“I have lots of problems with the way our democracy is headed in terms of money in politics, how many things are done behind closed doors,” the Roseville DFLer said last week, a day before lawmakers were called back to the Capitol. Two hundred and one legislators are asked to vote on bills most haven’t read, that were “negotiated by about three people,” he said.
Floor sessions, committee and subcommittee meetings of the Legislature are open to the public, but not the meetings between House and Senate leaders and the governor that have left the public on the governor’s residence lawn in recent weeks
The Minnesota Legislature passed the state’s main public record law in the 1970s, but legislators included a colossal exemption: themselves.
Marty’s bill would open up crucial meetings of legislative leaders to the public, as well as require more disclosure from lobbyists about money they give to politicians and what they’re lobbying about. It’s part of Marty’s perennial crusade to clean up Minnesota politics with more transparency and tighter controls on campaign finance.
No politicians would say, in public, that they prefer operating in secrecy. Privately, Marty said, too many of them say they can’t talk about such sensitive issues in public.
That’s not to say the Capitol is entirely opaque. Thanks to the Minnesota legislative website, it’s easier than ever to follow a bill as it moves through the melee that is lawmaking.
Despite the polarization gumming up politics these days, the legislative staff somehow remains cheerful and helpful in telling people how the place works.
The state House voluntarily provides some records about its operations, while its rules ensure the public can get the official record of its committees and other legislative proceedings, Matt Gehring, a legislative analyst/attorney in the House Research Department, said in an e-mail.
But the Minnesota Constitution guarantees lawmakers can do their jobs without fear of arrest or lawsuits. Gehring said that might would likely trump any law that forces them to turn over internal records.
Marty said he has never heard that argument before, but he admits he’s not a lawyer.
The way things work now, revealing records do leak out of the Legislature, usually when a politician wants to bludgeon someone or further a cause. Or the records emerge long after the information is really needed.
Plenty of legislatures have to abide by public records laws, including next door in Wisconsin.
Minnesota, by contrast, has followed the lead of Congress, which isn’t covered by the Freedom of Information Act it passed.
There is one thing the public can get its hands on from every Minnesota lawmaker: long-distance telephone bills. Remember those?
Back in 1993, the Legislature was stung by a scandal over the misuse of a toll-free number for legislators that was lent out to friends and relatives, who racked up an $85,000 phone bill on the House majority leader’s account.
“Phonegate” led to criminal charges, resignations and a law mandating that telephone records absolutely, unequivocally are public to anyone who asks for it. Marty said the law requires him, every month, to sign off on paperwork for bills totaling maybe four bucks.
“We have total disclosure of something nobody cares about,” Marty said.
Contact James Eli Shiffer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 612-673-4116. Read his blog at startribune.com/fulldisclosure.