House committee approves gift ban reversal

On opening day of the 2014 legislative session, a House committee approved a reversal of recent changes to the state’s long-standing ban on legislators accepting gifts from lobbyists.

As of the last legislative session, lawmakers can now accept food and beverages from lobbyists – for instance, at a reception hosted by a lobbying firm – so long as every member of the Legislature is invited.

Previously, lawmakers could attend such events as long as they paid for it, a rule that has given Minnesota high marks for good government.

Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL – Golden Valley, said the recent change is subtle but is already having an effect on the Legislature.

“While it may be true that everybody is invited, and you might say that can’t influence one particular legislator, the problem is is that it allows well-heeled interests to set the agenda here even more than they do already,” Winkler said during an Elections Committee hearing.

Winkler said that lobbyists are already trying to game the system, for instance by scheduling events in remote parts of the state with the assumption that not every legislator can make it.

Sen. Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, included the new rules in a bill that was meant to update campaign finance law during the last session. At the time, he told the Rochester Post-Bulletin that loosening the rules would allow lawmakers of both parties to spend more time together.

Everyone at the Capitol “complained about the [law] from the standpoint of just this place has changed, we're contentious, we don't get along together, we're not friends, we don't know each other," Senjem told the Post-Bulletin.

Winkler said that perspective is a “little bit naïve.”

Winkler’s bill heads to the House floor next, and House Speaker Paul Thissen has indicated that he has the votes to roll back the new gift ban rules.

As for the Senate, Winkler said he’s not sure if it will agree to undo Senjem’s work. Winkler indicated that his bill could end up in a conference committee report, which would prevent the Senate from voting on it as a stand-alone issue.

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