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Editorial: Open government? Not even in MN

We like to think we do things the right way around here. Above-board. Open. Honest. Without even a hint of sneaky.

How then do we explain the closing moments of Minnesota House deliberations in May? The chaos and all the desperate shouting? The passing of legislation “at the pace of an auctioneer,” according to the Center for Public Integrity, without lawmakers having read, or even received, the bills?

A video of that final one minute and 32 seconds is on YouTube. It’s revolting. Embarrassing. It’s not how we do things here in Minnesota.

Except, apparently, we do. When it comes to closed-door dealings; secret, last-minute trade-offs; and ethically questionable, less-than-open governance, Minnesota, unfortunately, is as bad as anywhere else. The Gopher State earned a D-minus for openness and transparency in state government, the D.C.-based Center for Public Integrity recently.

“Squeaky clean image hides a nest of ethical problems,” the national nonprofit said of Minnesota in the headline of its scathing report.

A couple of specifics:

“Minnesota’s legislative branch is not required to adhere to the state’s Government Data Practices Act — a series of mandates governing the disclosure of public information. Instead, the state House and Senate have their own set of rules governing how and when they give the public access to their meetings and documents. ...

“Small groups of legislators can meet in private to discuss legislation without needing to inform the public.”

Also, “When Sen. David Tomassoni (DFL-Chisholm) accepted a position with a local association of public schools in January, some of his colleagues questioned whether the move was appropriate.

“The association lobbies on behalf of northern Minnesota schools located in the same district that Tomassoni represents at the Legislature. But the Democratic senator denied that his $6,500 monthly salary posed a conflict of interest, saying he would not accept payment while the Legislature was in session. ...

“The case revealed the overall weakness in how the Legislature handles conflicts of interest, said David Schultz, a political science professor at Hamline University in St. Paul. ...

“‘Minnesota, which at one time was at the forefront of these issues, is now so entrenched that we’ve stood still in comparison with other states,’ Schultz said.”

Before anyone gets too uppity about all of this, let it be noted that despite its poor showing, Minnesota ranked a near-the-middle 28th among all states. The state with the best grade was Alaska, and it only earned a C. South Dakota and 10 other states failed.

Still, Minnesota received failing marks in executive accountability, legislative accountability, judicial accountability, ethics enforcement agencies, state pension fund management and public access to information. Clearly there’s room for improvement — even here.

Even if the last F, for access to public information, was unfair, as Don Gemberling of St. Paul, long a leader on freedom-of-information and privacy issues, argued in the St. Paul Pioneer Press. The Minnesota Data Practices Act, he said, “does have strong transparency features.”

Maybe it does. And maybe the Center for Public Integrity was out to shame every state in the union with its report. By its own admission, its grades were “harsh.”

But the center also was correct when it said that “the attention (the grades) bring should be instructive.” Democracy depends on an open government. More transparency and more information results in better decisions. Like Americans in other states, Minnesotans clearly deserve better from their state government. They deserve the sort of honest, above-board representation our reputation suggests.

In 2012, when the Center for Public Integrity first conducted a data-driven assessment of state government accountability and transparency, Minnesota received a D-plus. Not only is Minnesota’s grade embarrassingly abysmal, it’s going in the wrong direction. And Minnesotans can demand it be fixed.

Duluth News Tribune