Transparency: Subject Legislature to data practices law

For too long, the leading institution of representative democracy in Minnesota has escaped the disinfectant of sunshine.

The Legislature has never been subject to the Minnesota Data Practices Act, but in a rare move Gov. Tim Walz is now advocating the most powerful body in Minnesota government should be more transparent. He has proposed the Legislature, like the executive branch and counties, cities and schools, become more transparent by making itself subject to the rules of openness and good government that the Data Practices Act offers.

It’s troubling that GOP Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka opposes the transparency that Walz’s proposal would bring.

But this is not a partisan issue. Former GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty told The Free Press last year he also favors subjecting the Legislature to the Data Practices Act.

In fact, a survey of legislators before last year’s election showed 37 DFL and six Republican candidates or incumbents favored applying the open records laws to the Legislature.

Eighty-four DFL and 80 GOP candidates or incumbents did not answer the questions of the survey at all. We hope that is not an indication that their enthusiasm for such transparency is somewhat lacking.

Among area legislators, DFLer Rep. John Considine, Mankato, and Republican Jeremy Munson, Lake Crystal, said they favored applying the law to the Legislature, while GOP Rep. John Petersburg of Waseca said he was undecided. The rest of the area representatives did not complete the survey.

The survey was sent to all candidates for the Legislature and executive branches by the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information, which has long advocated for this law and other laws that increase government transparency in Minnesota. The questionnaire was supported by the Minnesota Society of Professional Journalists. (Full disclosure: Free Press Editor Joe Spear is past president of the organization).

It’s notable that Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison also supported the change.

Walz sent a letter to Gazelka recently saying he welcomes discussion of the issue during the next legislative session. But Gazelka later told the Star Tribune that he doesn’t recall agreeing to discuss that issue and opposes the proposal.

Gazelka and Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, argue that subjecting the Legislature to the Data Practices Act would threaten the privacy of constituent communications, arguing constituents write letters about very sensitive topics like drug abuse and sexual assault.

But that argument is a red herring. The Data Practices Act already designates such communications as confidential.

Both sides have in the past offered proposals that would make the dealings of the Legislature more transparent, but it’s been rare that a governor has supported that. Now it’s time to move forward with this good government proposal to make the Legislature’s business more transparent.

The information subject to disclosure would include complaints against legislators and investigations involving their conduct. These kind of disclosures are already required of the vast majority of state agencies, cities, counties and schools.

It’s time the Legislature get on board. We urge Walz to push for the changes and we urge all legislators to embrace them to create transparency in the most powerful body in Minnesota.

Candidate and legislator positions on transparency through the MNCOGI survey can be found here: http://tinyurl.com/y5wqhnrn .

— The Free Press of Mankato