Economic disclosure rules need a makeover [UPDATED]Published 7:34am Monday, January 14, 2013 Updated 9:39am Monday, January 14, 2013
In Section 10A.09 of the 2012 Minnesota Statutes, under the heading “Statements of Economic Interest,” you’ll find a clause requiring members of the Minnesota Legislature to disclose information about their sources of nonlegislative income.
The idea, obviously, is to prevent conflicts of interest. Legislators earn about $31,000 per year plus expenses, so most who are not retired have some other form of income.
It’s in the best interests of voters (and other legislators) to know who is getting paid by whom. Specifically, legislators are supposed to reveal “the name of each associated business and the nature of that association.”
With the 2013 session of the Minnesota Legislature convening this week, Minnesota Public Radio examined the information disclosed by legislators and concluded “the forms do not provide meaningful information that could alert the public to potential conflicts of interest.”
We looked at the forms, too, and we wholeheartedly agree.
That’s not to say the forms don’t contain some nuggets of information. For example, if you’d like to know who among your legislators use Charles Schwab as their investment broker or who owns shares of T Rowe Price mutual funds, you might find these disclosures interesting.
Even the titles people give themselves under the occupation heading are entertaining. Rep. Sarah Anderson, of Plymouth, calls herself a “professional,” which is about as informative as “businessman,” ”consultant,” ”director” and “executive” — some of the other occupations being claimed.
We give Rep. Nick Zerwas, of Elk River, full credit for honesty in declaring himself “unemployed” on his disclosure statement, but we discovered his House Web page says he’s a “consultant.” Which is it, Nick?
But really, there’s little to be gleaned from these reports. Legislators who are self-employed, perhaps as attorneys or consultants, understandably are reluctant to reveal the identity of their clients, and the law doesn’t require them to do so.
Yet, these are the type of business connections that have the greatest potential to create conflicts of interest in St. Paul.
How could the system be better? For starters, legislators need to have it better explained to them, so everyone is on the same page.
Right now, we must conclude either that some of our legislators have their retirement nesteggs stashed under mattresses or there’s rampant confusion regarding what must be revealed. (We suspect the latter.)
More importantly, the statute should be revised to require legislators to reveal at least the broad areas in which their outside employment touches upon matters of public interest. For example, a lawyer or consultant who has a major hospital as a client should have to reveal at least that much information — information that should be considered not just when votes are being counted but when committee appointments are being made.
Ultimately, of course, we have to rely on something akin to the honor system. We need legislators who are up-front and honest about their outside interests and who are willing to say “no” to certain financial opportunities while in office.
We’d also hope every legislator who takes the oath of office does so with the full knowledge that they’re making a commitment to their district and to the state, a commitment that shouldn’t be broken a few weeks later simply because someone on the outside offers a big paycheck. Rep. Steve Gottwalt, of St. Cloud, takes the opposite view, so he’s resigning.
If money is what chiefly drives you, you have little business seeking an office that bears the title “public servant.”