Senate Republicans last month received approval from the Minnesota Campaign Finance Board to create a private meeting space for legislators and lobbyists and other dues-paying members, raising concerns about transparency and undue influence and access.
A spokeswoman confirmed that the Senate Victory Fund, the Senate GOP’s campaign committee, sought the Finance Board opinion on its proposal to lease meeting space accessible to lawmakers and members who pay a fee.
“The space will be used, in part, to support the development of legislation that supports the party’s political agenda,” the advisory opinion said. “Passage of legislation and development of policies that are in line with the party’s goals will directly support the election of party candidates.”
It’s unclear if Senate Republicans will pursue the plan. Requests seeking more information this week from a Senate GOP spokeswoman, Rachel Aplikowski, and an email sent to Senate Majority Leader Jeremy Miller, R-Winona, were not returned.
Advocates for governmental transparency, however, said the plan could grant access to large corporations but not to regular Minnesotans. Here’s why it matters.
What’s the issue?
Under state law, legislators are prohibited from accepting campaign contributions during the legislative session, which begins in late January. The pandemic and other security concerns have also greatly reduced public access to the Capitol complex, including to lawmaker offices.
The Senate GOP plan
The advisory opinion contains details of the proposal by Senate Republicans: “The party unit intends to lease space for use by the party unit, elected members of the party, staff, and invited guests during the legislative session. In order to use the facility, elected members of the party will be required 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 also be offered to non-elected officials, i.e. lobbyists and other individuals who have business before the Legislature. Senate Republicans will have discretion over who can join.
Food and beverage would be available for purchase, as well.
What does the Campaign Finance Board say?
The advisory opinion makes clear that the membership fee would be considered a campaign contribution and would need to be reported.
On the key question of whether the membership fee would violate state law on the ban of campaign contributions during the session, it says: “Although access to the meeting facility will be provided during a regular legislative session, the contribution occurs when payment of the membership dues is physically received by the party unit, or if the party unit accepts payment of membership dues through electronic means, on the date when the lobbyist makes the contribution,” it says.
What critics are saying
David Schultz, a Hamline University political science professor, said the plan would be a step backward for transparency in government.
“What the board essentially did here is sanction a private club where, even if this money is disclosed, lobbyists now get special access to legislators,” he said. Such a plan, he said, would “revert us back to a pre-Watergate era.”
Minnesota currently has a D- grade from the Center for Public Integrity, which gave the state poor marks for government transparency. CPI ranks Minnesota 44th in the country for its legislative accountability.
Annastacia Belladonna-Carrera, director of Common Cause Minnesota, said her group plans to formally address 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 corporate client, the contribution would need to be reported.
Belladonna-Carrera says that creates a potential loophole to hide the influence of a corporation.
“This is the rub there: 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 the corporation, business, or other entity they are employed under?” she said.