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Minnesota Opinion: Kill Legislature's ridiculous secret-meeting exemption

Wait, wait, wait. Can this be right?

The state of Minnesota way back in 1957 passed a law requiring that meetings of government bodies be open to the public. OK, that part makes good sense: No governing in secret.

But the Minnesota Legislature exempts itself from the statute. As much of a disservice as that is to shut out Minnesotans, that part, believe it or not, actually is right.

And very, very wrong.

And demands to be fixed — this session.

Rep. Paul Thissen of Minneapolis introduced a package of bills this month to do just that, to subject the Legislature to the same Minnesota Data Practices Act requirements and open-meeting laws as all other elected officials in the state. Lawmakers owe it to constituents to operate in plain view and with complete transparency, all the way down to conference committee activities. It's actually amazing and shocking to learn they haven't been holding themselves to their own standards of good governance.

"Sunshine leads to trust and accountability," Thissen said in a statement sent to Minnesota media. "By opening the Legislature up to the same data practices and open-meeting requirements we demand of all other elected officials, we can start rebuilding trust and create better laws, too. ... Too many Minnesotans are discouraged and believe that state government is working for insiders and the well-connected rather than working, as it should, for regular people."

In addition to guaranteeing open meetings, Thissen's measures would require sufficient advance notice of meetings so the public could meaningfully participate. They would make letters, emails and other communication and documents — though not individual constituent correspondence — available for public review. Legislative schedules also would be made public so constituents could know who was meeting with their elected leaders. And Thissen is seeking serious consequences should any lawmaker continue to insist on governing in secret.

These latest proposals and fixes are in line with Thissen's efforts a year ago to improve government transparency and the way the Legislature was working — or not working, especially at the ends of sessions when secret deals, backroom negotiations, and last-minute measures led to votes on unread bills, shouting, chaos and overall dysfunction. How dysfunctional? Two years ago, the Legislature received a D- grade for openness and transparency from a national government watchdog group called the Center for Public Integrity. Lawmakers were lucky they didn't get an F.

Thissen's reforms last year included longer public notices prior to legislative votes (in other words, enough time to actually read bills before voting on them); waiting periods before former legislators could become lobbyists; earlier deadlines for legislation, which would allow more time for meaningful debate and review; an end to working after midnight during the last two weeks of the legislative session so bills aren't passed "in the dark of night;" and an end to the loathsome practice of attaching unrelated and controversial or unpopular measures to larger bills because they wouldn't stand a chance of passing on their own.

Duluth's Sen. Roger Reinert pitched his own better-government package of bills in 2015. He proposed a Legislature with no party affiliations, an open primary system, a tougher-to-meet threshold to amend the state Constitution, a nonpartisan review of Minnesota's many tax deductions, and a three-fifths supermajority vote any time a lawmaker proposed shifting funding away from K-12 education. Reinert also was co-chairman of the so-called "Purple Caucus," an unofficial coalition of legislators promoting the worthy principle of "Minnesotans first, other labels second."

So creating a more-open, more-accessible, better-functioning state government in Minnesota isn't a new desire. Neither, apparently, is the Minnesota Legislature not holding itself to its own open-meeting and data-practices laws, a ridiculous realization that demands to be fixed.