Those cumulative failures earned Minnesota a grade of D-, ranking it 28th in the State Integrity Investigation, a data-driven assessment of state government accountability and transparency conducted by the Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity.
That’s little change from the project’s first go-round in 2012, when the state earned a D+. The two scores are not directly comparable, however, due to changes made to improve and update the questions and methodology, such as eliminating the category for redistricting, a process that generally occurs only once every 10 years.
Minnesota has always run in the middle of the pack when it comes to ethics and openness in state government, with leaders often praising the Midwestern state for its dearth of scandal.
But the absence of such moral blunders doesn’t necessarily equate to a squeaky-clean record. In fact, some advocates of greater oversight say that the lack of such public corruption allows the state to maintain the status quo.
Behind closed doors
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.
While state law requires that nearly all executive branch and local government meetings are open to the public, legislative rules say meetings must be open to the public only if a quorum is present and the group intends to take action on an issue within its jurisdiction. The effect is that small groups of legislators can meet in private to discuss legislation without needing to inform the public.
Last May, for example, representatives from both parties met quietly to discuss a surprise provision to strip the state auditor’s office of its local auditing responsibility. The bill was passed and signed by Gov. Mark Dayton in May.
“The fact is, the work that gets done and the horse trading that goes on, always goes on behind closed doors,” said Mark Haveman, executive director of the Minnesota Center for Fiscal Excellence, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization.
This past year seemed more troubling than previous ones, said Democratic House Minority Leader Rep. Paul Thissen. “Behind the scenes discussions have always been part of the legislative process, but the process was much worse this year than in the past,” he said.