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Pioneer Press Praises Rep. Thissen's Legislative Transparency Proposal

The St. Paul Pioneer Press wrote a strong editorial in favor of Rep. Thissen's government transparency proposals:

OPEN DOORS, OPEN PROCESS

It’s good to hear Minnesotans talking about more transparency in state government.

It’s even better if the talk — typically from those with the most to gain at the moment from reform — comes with commitment to pursue it should the balance of power shift.

House Minority Leader Paul Thissen last month unveiled a package of changes to rules and procedures with openness in mind. This week he told us the effort is “something I’m committed to working on now and committed to working on if we do take back the majority” in the November election.

“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,” Thissen, a Minneapolis Democrat and former House speaker, said in a statement outlining his package.

Thissen’s proposals to address end-of-session opacity require publication of conference-committee reports 24 hours before a vote, call for conference committees to provide an opportunity for public testimony and forbid the suspension of rules to pass bills “in the dark of night.”

Those proposals and others, Thissen told us, address the “idea that legislators and the public should be informed about what they are voting on and should be able to voice their opinion and weigh in on these proposals” before a final vote.

When it comes to policing lawmakers themselves, Thissen’s package would:

  • Study the possibility of bringing the House under open-records laws. A Pioneer Press report makes clear that the House and Senate currently are exempt from such laws, setting their own rules for open meetings, data they release and other transparency issues.
  • Ban legislators — as well as judges and cabinet-level executive-branch members — from becoming lobbyists during the legislative session immediately after their departure from public service. A Pioneer Press analysis in 2015 found dozens of lawmakers had made the leap from the Legislature to lobbying, some within days of departure.

Sen. John Marty is chief author of a bill that would address the “revolving door” from the Legislature to lobbying. It places a seven-year ban on such moves, but the Democrat from Roseville said he is willing to negotiate on the time frame.

His bill also would open conference committee negotiations to the public and address the potential for conflicts of interest with modifications to campaign finance and disclosure requirements.

Another of the proposals to address inner workings at the Capitol — one from St. Cloud Republican Rep. Jim Knoblach — would allow candidates to run for the Legislature without party designation.

“This isn’t a new idea,” Knoblach told us, noting that Minnesotans once elected their legislators as they do most  mayors and members of city councils and school boards. At the Capitol, lawmakers caucused as liberals and conservatives through the mid-’70s.

“I just think we had better government then,” he said. “There was less party rancor. People were more open to ideas.”

The concept is considered a long shot, leaving voters to wonder — in the absence of party labels — about where candidates might be expected to stand on issues, let alone the group with whom they’ll caucus.

The prevalence of campaign information on the Internet, Knoblach said, addresses such concerns.

Still, Knoblach told us, “A major change like this doesn’t happen overnight. You’ve got to educate people and build support.”

Behind the run of good-government proposals, Thissen observes, is “a perception — and some reality — that too much of this work that we do happens outside the public view.”

“You see so much these days about the public’s declining trust of government,” he said. “One of the things underlying that is this perception that it’s not ordinary people’s voices that are being heard, but special interests who can get access to those back rooms.”

Current House Speaker Kurt Daudt, a Republican from Crown, noted that Thissen once was empowered to make just the kind of changes he is now proposing, the Pioneer Press’ Rachel Stassen-Berger wrote, quoting Daudt saying, “When he was speaker of the House he didn’t do any of this.”

When it comes to the will to change, there are some who “like the last-minute, behind-closed-doors situation because it works to their negotiating advantage,” Thissen said. “That needs to be set aside in favor of more public transparency.”

Marty suggests such measures might fare better in an election year. Then, in particular, “It’s really hard to argue against disclosure,” he told us.

Thissen agrees, to a point. “To the extent that these are things the public is looking for, yes, you would maybe have a bit more leverage,” he said. “The key is whether enough voters care about the internal operations of the Legislature.”

They should

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