Session fundraising lockdown doesn’t close off all avenues

People clap in a crowd
House Speaker Melissa Hortman and Senate Majority Leader Kari Dziedzic, will be guests at a DFL Party fundraiser later this month. A law bans lawmakers from raising their own money during the legislative session.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

Updated 2 p.m.

Minnesota lawmakers and their caucuses are in a campaign fundraising blackout period, where they can’t pull in money from registered lobbyists, outside political funds or associations that might have matters pending before the Legislature.

But that long-standing law — restricting certain contributions between 12 a.m. on the first day of the annual legislative session and 11:59 p.m. on the final day — isn’t the barrier to influence that it has been held up to be. 

Major political groups and state parties remain open for contributions. And they can rely on the same officials restricted by law to draw donors to fundraisers as long as the lawmakers are not called hosts.

Later this month, Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, Senate Majority Leader Kari Dziedzic and House Speaker Melissa Hortman are set to headline a “Mid-Session Meet and Greet” for the DFL state party. Donors at the evening event being held in a hotel a short walk from the Capitol are asked to contribute between $250 to $2,500.

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The invitation’s fine print strives to keep it within bounds of the session contribution restrictions: “Any contribution solicited from a lobbyist or PAC is solicited solely by the Minnesota DFL Party and is made exclusively for the Minnesota DFL Party. No contributions will be solicited by, or accepted on behalf of, the House DFL Caucus, the Senate DFL caucus, or any candidate.”

An invitation for a fundraiser
The invitation for a DFL Party fundraiser.
Brian Bakst | MPR News

By the time the fundraiser is held March 28, the Legislature will be in the thick of forming a new two-year budget and divvying up the state’s $17.5 billion surplus. The DFL leaders will be intimately involved in the big-picture negotiations and steering a final deal through.

In a written statement, party chair Ken Martin defended the mid-session event as being solely focused on raising money for the party’s grassroots organizing.

“The DFL Party takes campaign finance laws very seriously and we are confident that our event is fully in compliance with those laws,” Martin’s statement said, drawing a parallel to similar fundraisers previously held by Minnesota Republicans. 

Martin added that “lawmakers who will be speaking at our event will not be soliciting or accepting any contributions.”

Dziedzic and Hortman declined to comment on their fundraiser participation when asked by MPR News.

A spokesperson for Flanagan said, “We’re excited to continue meeting with Minnesotans and building the momentum we’ve created to lower costs for families, invest in our economic future and make Minnesota the best state in the nation to raise a family.”

The party has a history of large transfers to each DFL caucus in election years — $580,000 to the House caucus and $93,000 to the Senate caucus in 2022. The caucuses also transferred considerable funds to the party, which was active in mailings, TV ads and other voter contacts in critical races.

Jeff Sigurdson, executive director of the Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board, said the session contribution prohibition from select givers doesn’t apply to political party units or state central committees, such as the Minnesota DFL and the Republican Party of Minnesota.

Sigurdson said he doesn’t know the precise rationale for the exception “but apparently the Legislature thought that local party units and the state central committee had enough separation from legislators that undue influence was not a concern if they received a contribution that would be prohibited if the same contribution was received by a candidate or legislative party unit.”

All of the legislative caucuses hold big fundraisers in the hours and days before the session gavels in or barely after it ends.

The state DFL isn’t the first or only entity to find a way to leverage key decision-makers without running afoul of campaign law.

Both parties hold annual dinners — Humphrey-Mondale in the case of the DFL and Lincoln Reagan in the case of the GOP — that serve as a main fundraiser for the year. Those regularly draw top elected officials, some of whom get time at the podium to address donors and the party faithful. The events sometimes but don’t always get held when the Legislature is in session.

In 2019, the Republican Party featured a pair of GOP legislative leaders at an Elephant Club event held during the session’s run.

Republican Party Executive Director Mike Lonergan called out the DFL fundraiser as “blurring the line on campaign finance law” by allowing lobbyists and other interests to donate during the session.

Republican Senate Minority Leader Mark Johnson said the DFL the event doesn’t live up to the spirit of Minnesota’s law.

“To me this really seems like a blatant pay to play situation,” Johnson said. “That's why we're against it. That's why we're trying to clear up this loophole and shut it down.”

Johnson pledged to steer clear of GOP fundraisers open to lobbyists during legislative sessions.

Groups active at the Capitol, such as the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, host events built around lawmaker appearances as the Legislature convenes for the year. The chamber’s widely attended and heavily sponsored “Session Priorities” dinner is capped with remarks from the governor and the top legislators from both parties.

A chamber official said proceeds cover event costs and remaining money goes into an organization-run foundation; none goes to political efforts.

Political fundraising in years without a crucial state election can be a challenge for parties and others. Big donors often feel fatigue from the repeated asks the year before.

In 2021, the state campaign board issued an advisory opinion that appeared to clear the way for legislative caucuses to open facilities and charge lobbyists membership dues for using the space. The board determined it wouldn’t run afoul of the session contribution prohibition if memberships are purchased during non-session periods. The Minnesota Reformer reported a political entity tied to Senate Republicans sought the opinion.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers worked to close what they saw as a loophole by barring the “special access” clubs, but the fix got held up in a broader budget stalemate. It would have amended the session contribution law to add more restrictions.

Sen. Lindsey Port, DFL-Burnsville, is moving again to get the bill passed. It has already cleared committees and awaits a final vote. Dziedzic, the Senate’s leader, is a cosponsor. A House version has also advanced.

“As the voices of the people here at the Capitol, it is critical that we do not have special access to high-powered interest groups or those who can pay for our time. It is a time when money often drowns out the voices of the people,” Port said in January when the Senate Elections Committee took fewer than 10 minutes to endorse the bill. “We should clearly say we should not be bought.”