Minnesota Opinion: It's time for more sunshine in Minnesota Legislature
Sure, a new open-data, open-meeting bill makes a political point. But it's a good one.
Minnesotans deserve a reminder that the Legislature exempted itself from provisions of the state's Data Practices Act and Open Meeting Law.
The Legislature "makes every local government and the executive branch follow these rules," the bill's sponsor, Rep. Paul Thissen, a Democrat from Minneapolis, told us, "but the Legislature exempts itself. That seems a little bit hypocritical." The House and Senate set their own rules with respect to open meetings, release of data and other transparency matters.
At a time trust in government is strained, the former House speaker said, "it seems to me the answer to that is more sunlight and more transparency and more accountability."
More of that, Thissen said, "will start to rebuild the institutional trust that we need if we're going to actually accomplish anything meaningful."
With such change, he explains, lawmakers' schedules would become public information "so constituents can know who their legislators are meeting with for official business." The measure would extend to emails, including those between legislators and between legislators and lobbyists and other outside groups. The exception: constituent correspondence.
We've observed that such reform initiatives generally come from the side with the most to gain.
"This kind of legislation has been introduced by the party not in power for whatever political gain it might produce and then when that party gets in power, you never hear anything again — and that's a bipartisan comment," said Don Gemberling, a longtime state leader on freedom-of-information and privacy matters.
Good to get it on the record, then.
Thissen said he's "looking at this as a biennium project" that could stretch over the two years of the session. "It's a big culture change that's going to cause a lot of legislators to really think hard about whether they want to open themselves up to what I think is appropriate transparency."
The will for reform wasn't apparent when the House met earlier this month to decide on its rules for the biennium.
Among provisions considered was a move to require representatives to disclose the sponsors of the junket trips they take, the Pioneer Press' Rachel E. Stassen-Berger reported.
The proposal, defeated on a 56-68 vote, would not have banned the trips but would have required House members and House employees to report the sponsors of the trips they take and that those reports be posted on the House website.
Thissen, who last session introduced a package of transparency changes to rules and procedures, considers the current bill "the next incremental step" on the path toward increased transparency.
Changes, Thissen told us, will continue to have bipartisan support — and opposition.
His plan: "Keep pushing it forward and getting people comfortable" with reform. "I think it's what Minnesotans expect of us. We need to convince the Legislature of that."
At a time of distrust of government, he asks, "You would think that what they would want is more openness and more transparency, right?"