Proposal seeks to improve Minnesota’s “D- rating” for openness and transparency
SAINT PAUL, MINN – 2015 was not a banner year for transparency in Minnesota’s government. Minnesota received a D- grade for openness and transparency in state government from a report conducted by the Center for Public Integrity, a national non-profit watchdog organization. Among other reasons, the report highlighted backroom negotiations and the chaotic conclusion of the 2015 session as areas where Minnesota’s government comes up short in terms of its openness to the public.
Today, State Representative Paul Thissen announced a legislative reform package that includes both statutory and procedural recommendations to make the legislature more open and transparent to the public. The recommendations include longer public notices before final actions on bills and changes to make it easier for the public to follow legislation and provide input. In addition, the proposal seeks a statutory change to stop the “revolving door” of legislators who become lobbyists and increased reporting related to per diem and other public expenditures.
“Minnesotans expect and deserve a government that puts them first, but too many people are disconnecting from a political process that they see as disproportionately benefiting the wealthy and well-connected," said Thissen. "Minnesotans I've heard from are frustrated by a lack of transparency and sense that special interests are pulling strings behind the scenes. We owe it to those Minnesotans and all of our constituents to make our legislature more transparent and more open to the public - even if it causes discomfort for us as legislators.”
Thissen’s package includes several changes to rules and procedures designed to improve the ability of legislators to craft sound public policy and to allow the public to participate in the process. Those changes include:
24 hour public notice before final vote: Require conference committee reports be published 24 hours prior to a vote taking place before each House and require House votes on concurrences from the Senate to be 24 hours prior to a vote taking place.
Increased transparency for conference committees: Require public notification of a conference committee adoption vote 12 hours prior to adoption vote. Also, require conference committees to provide an opportunity for public testimony.
No more passing bills “in dark of night”: Amend House rules to forbid the ability to suspend the rules for the purpose of allowing the House to meet past midnight prior to the last two weeks of legislative session.
Increased transparency and public participation in setting joint budget targets: Require that once joint targets are adopted, the LCPFP shall hold a hearing and vote to approve target - a binding vote for both bodies. In addition, an opportunity for public testimony must be provided for. In addition, amend House Rules to require adoption of joint targets no later than 14 days prior to adjournment. And, if the fourteen day requirement is not met, require approval of the entire House for joint targets.
Move constitutional language on “single subject rule” to House Rules: Require in the House Rules that no bill before the House shall embrace more than one subject (except for major finance bills).
Limit omnibus budget bills to budget related material: Amend House Rules so that Omnibus Budget Bills only contain budget related material.
“We must never repeat the mockery of legislative process that occurred last session when the House jammed through a $100 million spending bill that no one – either legislators or the public – had a chance to read,” said Thissen. “These rule changes may present challenges to legislators, but we need to think about our constituents, who right now face too many hurdles to follow legislation at the legislature that may have a significant impact on their lives.”
Thissen’s proposal would also include measures to ensure legislators are meeting a higher standard of transparency and disclosure with the public. Those changes include:
Stop “Revolving Door”: Require a 1-year “Revolving Door” statutory change, banning former legislators, judges as well as cabinet-level executive branch members from becoming lobbyists for the formal legislative session immediately following the date of departure from public service.
Data Practices Study: Currently, the Minnesota House is exempt from the Data Practice Act. That should change. The Legislative Commission on Data Practices should study and report back to the legislature before the 2017 legislative session with a proposal to implement provisions of the Data Practices Act in the Minnesota House and a proposal to cover the costs of such changes.
Increased transparency related to per diem and other public expenditures: Establish House policy to publish all information related to per diem, mileage, housing stipend, committee budgets, etc. on a rolling monthly basis.
“We need to build greater trust with the public that legislators are conducting their work on behalf of the people,” said Thissen. “These provisions take steps in the right direction.”
Thissen said legislation that requires statutory changes would be introduced the first week of session. He encourages the House Republican Majority to engage on a debate on House Rules around provisions that would require rule changes.