Running Scared

Sen. Linda Higgins (DFL-Mpls.) promises to fight for tougher ethics laws during this session
Richard Fleischman

It has been nearly three years now since Gov. Tim Pawlenty belatedly announced that he took $54,000 from telecom executive Elam Baer for purported independent contracting work that he neither reported nor proved he had earned through any supporting documents. It wasn't illegal then--Pawlenty cleverly had Baer pay his one-person business rather than him personally--and it isn't illegal now.

Likewise, Rep. Matt Entenza (DFL-St. Paul) and his wife, health care executive Lois Quam, can each keep donating hundreds of thousands of dollars to state party caucuses--even the one where Entenza, who is still the House minority leader, holds some influence over how that money is apportioned. This unlimited flow of "soft money" through state political parties is especially valuable in local races where candidates themselves can be limited to spending as little as $30,000.

Earlier this month, the Center for Public Integrity, the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that reports on public policy issues such as ethics laws, announced that 24 states have strengthened their lobbyist and campaign disclosure rules since 2003. Yet Minnesota, which hasn't enacted significant campaign finance or disclosure reforms since 1993, continues to get a grade of "F" from the organization because the state doesn't require that potential conflicts of interest such as Baer's payment to Pawlenty be disclosed to the public.

But that may finally change because of the recent high-profile allegations of influence-peddling involving Texas Rep. Tom DeLay and lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Last week, a trio of DFL senators proposed a raft of legislative reforms that would significantly expand the reach of state ethics laws. Their press conference, conveniently staged the day before rank-and-file party activists would meet at precinct caucuses, was called by Linda Higgins (DFL-Mpls.), chair of the Senate's State and Local Government Operations Committee and a member of the Elections Committee.

When the Pawlenty-Baer story broke in 2003, Higgins opposed full disclosure of all independent contracts on the grounds it would invade the privacy of too many vendors whose business with a candidate was unrelated to politics. She acknowledges that public rancor over the Abramoff matter has helped to change her position.

The resistance is still likely to be stiff. Special interest groups who are bent on safeguarding the influence they wield over politicians--most notably, the anti-abortion-rights group Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life--have successfully scuttled attempts at ethics reform in recent years, and it is not hard to believe that most of the incumbents at the Capitol are happy with the current loopholes. Rhetoric aside, perennial proponents of squeaky-clean government, such as Sen. John Marty (DFL-St. Paul), are generally regarded as naifs by their colleagues. So, is there anything among the wide array of proposed reforms that actually stands a chance of passing this session?

"I think the revolving-door limits--the ban on legislators coming back as lobbyists--has a real chance this year," says David Schultz, a professor of government ethics at Hamline University and a former president of the state branch of Common Cause. "When Republicans first took control of the House back in 1999, [Majority Leader Steve] Sviggum [R-Kenyon] said one of his top priorities was putting a one-year ban on legislators before they can be lobbyists. It passed the House but didn't even get a hearing in the DFL-majority Senate. And last year Sviggum and Ann Lenczewski (DFL-Bloomington) were bipartisan co-authors."

Noting that Higgins, a committee chair from the Senate's DFL majority, has included a two-year revolving-door ban among her proposals, Schultz adds, "Leaders in both the House and Senate have now said they want this. There's no reason for it not to pass. It would be a baby step toward progress." Since 2003, Georgia, New Jersey, Tennessee, and North Carolina have all passed temporary bans on the revolving door.

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