Senate GOP gets permission to create private club for lawmakers and lobbyists during session

Senate Republicans last month received approval from the Minnesota Campaign Finance Board to create a private meeting space for lawmakers, lobbyists and other dues-paying members, raising concerns about transparency, influence and access undue.

A spokeswoman confirmed that the Senate Victory Fund, the Senate GOP campaign committee, had sought advice from the Finance Council on its proposal to rent meeting space accessible to lawmakers and paying members. expenses.

“The space will be used, in part, to support the development of legislation that supports the party’s political program,” the advisory opinion says. “Passing laws and developing policies consistent with party goals will directly support the election of party candidates. “

It’s unclear whether Senate Republicans will pursue the plan. Requests for more information this week from Senate GOP spokesperson Rachel Aplikowski and an email sent to Senate Majority Leader Jeremy Miller R-Winona have not been returned.

Open-government advocates, however, said the plan could grant access to large companies but not ordinary Minnesotans. Here’s why it’s important.

What is the problem?

Under state law, lawmakers are prohibited from accepting election contributions during the legislative session, which begins in late January. The pandemic and other security concerns have also significantly reduced public access to the Capitol complex, including lawmakers’ offices.

The Senate GOP plan

The advisory opinion contains details of the Senate Republicans’ proposal: “The party unit intends to lease space for the use of the party unit, elected party members, staff and officials. invited during the legislative session. In order to use the facility, elected party members will have to pay a membership fee that is specifically for access to the facility.

The space will not be open to the general public. Membership will also be available to unelected representatives, that is, lobbyists and others having dealings with the Legislative Assembly. Senate Republicans will have the discretion to decide who can join.

Food and drink would also be available for purchase.

What does the campaign finance committee say?

The advisory makes it clear that the membership fee would be considered a campaign contribution and should be reported.

On the key question of whether membership fees would violate state law prohibiting campaign contributions during session, it says: dues are physically received by the party unit, or whether the party unit accepts the payment of contributions electronically, on the date the lobbyist pays the contribution, ”he says.

What the critics say

David Schultz, professor of political science at Hamline University, said the plan would be a step backwards for transparency in government.

“What the board has basically done here is sanction a private club where, even though this money is leaked, lobbyists now have special access to lawmakers,” he said. Such a plan, he said, “would take us back to a pre-Watergate era.”

Minnesota currently has a D rating from the Center for Public Integrity, which gave the state low marks for government transparency. The IPC ranks Minnesota 44th in the country for its legislative responsibility.

Annastacia Belladonna-Carrera, director of Common Cause Minnesota, said her group plans to formally deal with the advisory opinion with the Campaign Finance Board.

The advisory opinion says lobbyists should pay membership fees from personal funds. If they are reimbursed by a client company, the contribution must be declared.

Belladonna-Carrera says this creates a potential loophole to hide a company’s influence.

“This is where the shoe pinches: what other reason would a lobbyist have to join and pay out of pocket for this exclusive pay-to-play ‘membership’, other than to advance the interests of society, company or any other entity for which he is employed under? ”she said.

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