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Capitol Chatter: End-of-session questions go unanswered

Minnesota Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka of Nisswa, front, listens to a reporter's question Wednesday, May 16, 2018. Looking on is Tax Chairman Roger Chamberlain of Lino Lakes. Don Davis / Forum News Service1 / 2
Minnesota House Speaker Kurt Daudt talks to reporters, wth Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, on Monday, May 14, 2018, with less than a week left in the legislative session. Don Davis / Forum News Service2 / 2

ST. PAUL — The radio host asked a reporter: "What do we know about things happening at the Legislature?"

Simple question. Not such a simple answer.

The fact is that political reporters know as much as anyone other than high-level legislators, and rank-and-file lawmakers often come to reporters for information as a legislative session winds down. But, frankly, closed-door meetings among legislative leaders and the governor near the end of nearly every legislative session means the public is left in the dark until the legislative deed is done.

The Legislature exempts itself from open meetings and public records laws, allowing the secret dealings.

Reporters can sit outside of negotiating sessions, but only get tidbits from those actually inside the meetings. Minnesotans often never know what really goes on.

This year, lawmakers technically did not have to do anything. With the two-year, $46 billion budget put in place a year ago, there was nothing that absolutely had to be done in 2018. If nothing happened in the Legislature, the state would function as normal. There would be no shutdown.

Besides doing things in secret and not facing a penalty for inaction, legislative leaders decided to throw almost all major legislation into one massive bill.

The bill contained everything from school safety funding to tiny policy items that affect a handful of people.

Putting such a variety of legislation into a single bill makes it hard for that political reporter to answer the radio host's question, as does making major decisions behind closed doors.

Abuse probe progresses

State officials say "significant progress" is being made in investigating elder abuse.

The Minnesota Health and Human Services departments say improvements have been made in an attempt to make sure that no more will nursing home and other abuse complaints sit in piles in state offices, with no investigations. Improvements range from new electronic tools to better communications and oversight.

The two departments last year began to work together as abuse complaints went without investigations. Legislative committee hearings brought numerous stories of ignored elderly and even deaths.

When the departments began their efforts to fix the problems, there was a 2,321-case backlog. Now, that backlog is reported to be 122.

"These accomplishments are encouraging steps in a larger process to ensure an effective and timely response to every complaint we receive," Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said. "We look forward to continuing to improve our regulatory oversight."

Wanted: Election judges

Secretary of State Steve Simon is looking for election judges.

"Successful democracies require active citizen participation," Simon said. "Minnesota returned in 2016 to No. 1 in voter participation, but that can't happen without our election judges who serve on the front lines of democracy."

Minnesota's primary and general elections this year will each require more than 30,000 Minnesotans election judges.

The primary is Aug. 14, with the general election on Nov. 6.

Cities and counties hire most judges for the more than 3,500 polling places. Applicants must be eligible to vote in the state and be able to communicate in English.

No nitrate oversight

The Republican-controlled Legislature has dropped its demand that lawmakers approve a new fertilizer rule before farmers are required to follow it.

House and Senate negotiators opted to allow the governor and his Agriculture Department to have the final say.

It has been a controversial issue. Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton's administration proposed new rules that, among other things, banned farmers in parts of the state from applying nitrate fertilizer on frozen ground during the fall.

The proposed rules are going in front of public hearings for the next several weeks, with a final decision due by early next year. The latest proposal are more acceptable to rural lawmakers than previous proposals.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.