Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Let the sun shine in

Public access laws should apply to all public officials, even legislators

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For years, the Minnesota Legislature has done a good job of allowing the sun to shine on the workings of our government.

Statutes such as the Open Meeting Law allow residents and the media to find out when government meetings will be held, what will be discussed and, most importantly, grants the right to sit in on those discussions. The Minnesota Government Data Practices Act mandates that the vast majority of government records are open to the public.

The Legislature, to its credit, has also established processes through which the public can get relatively prompt action in situations where public officials don’t abide by these laws.

This legal framework reflects the sound judgment of Minnesotans across the political spectrum, namely that open government at all levels is essential to democracy.

Unfortunately, Minnesota still harbors one enormous black hole in state government where public access remains far too limited— and that’s at the Legislature itself.

While the above-noted laws apply to all state agencies, cities, school districts, and many other governmental and quasi-governmental entities, they don’t apply to the work of the Legislature.

They should, and that’s why a small, bipartisan group of legislators have introduced a bill that would do just that.

These bills are known as House File 1065 and Senate File 1393, and they would go a long way toward increasing the transparency of a critical branch of state government that has exempted itself from the rules for far too long. We urge readers to consider contacting their members of the Legislature to urge their support for this legislation.

We know that many members of the Legislature would just as soon see this bill languish in committee. Sen. Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, recently informed one of his constituents that he opposes the bill because it could make his email communications with constituents subject to disclosure.

But here’s the reality— such communications are already subject to disclosure for elected members of the executive branch, for state agency officials, school board members, or city councilors. Why should the communications of legislators be considered somehow above the law? If sunshine is good for the goose, why not the gander?

In truth, few Minnesotans would be interested in the emails between legislators and their average constituent. Actual data requests for government emails are not common and bringing the Legislature under the same laws as everyone else likely wouldn’t change that. But the public might be interested in emails between legislators and lobbyists, or large campaign contributors, and rightly so. If legislators are being subject to undue influence, shouldn’t the public have a means to ferret that out?

The broader issue is that far too much of what happens at the Legislature is done behind closed doors, and it undermines the public’s trust. The penchant of both the Legislature in St. Paul and the Congress in Washington to exempt themselves from a whole host of laws that apply everywhere else in government and society rankles the public at large. For legislators to exempt themselves from the same transparency laws that apply elsewhere in government is simply hypocritical.

Legislators should end the hypocrisy. Sunshine is a remarkable disinfectant, and it’s time it starts to shine on the workings of the Legislature.

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