In our government "of the people," the public should not be locked out of the political process. Yet, Minnesota legislators negotiate much of our state budget behind closed doors.
People understandably expect their elected representatives will conduct business in public where they can be held accountable. That's why the news media speaks out if a city council from even the smallest Minnesota community holds a closed-door meeting. If reporters believe a closed meeting is not permitted under Minnesota's open meeting law, the media is quick to take legal action.
Unfortunately, this same level of openness and public accountability is missing at the state capitol.
For many years, Minnesota legislative committees operated behind closed doors. Lawmakers discussed and amended legislation in committee meetings that included only legislators, staff, and often a few lobbyists. Much of the legislative process was conducted outside of public view.
Then, thirty years ago, the DFL party campaigned on the theme of opening the doors to government. Legislative candidates promised to "let the sun shine" in on meetings at the capitol. They won control of the legislature, and to their credit, they kept their promise. New sunshine rules were adopted. For the first time, the public was allowed in during every step of the lawmaking process.
Unfortunately, over the past three decades, this open door has been slowly closing. While committee meetings are still open to the public, many of the most important policy and budget decisions are now made behind closed doors, in party caucus meetings and conference committee negotiations.
Legislative budget "targets" are first discussed in closed-door caucus meetings. And many of the biggest budget decisions are made in closed-door conference committee negotiations. The negotiated results are merely rubberstamped in an open meeting of the conference committee.
Certainly there are circumstances where public interest would require meetings be closed, and the law allows such exceptions. But there is no excuse for closed-door meetings where elected officials are determining public policy.
Legislators who defend the status quo argue that all "official" meetings are open, and that politicians can be more "frank" in closed-door caucus meetings and legislative negotiations. This should raise red flags and sound warning sirens! Frank about what? Are they suggesting it is ok for public officials to say one thing in public and a different thing when important decisions are made behind closed doors?
If we believe in openness when routine legislation is debated, isn’t it even more important when the most important decisions are made? The law covering local officials doesn't allow such loopholes. For school boards, city councils and county boards, an open process is required. Is it less important for the public to have access to state government?
There is a chance to close these loopholes. The House and Senate created a task force to study legislative rules. The legislature directed the task force to recommend improvements to accomplish the goal, among others, of "enhancing the openness and accessibility of the legislative process to citizens."
Even so, task force members reacted to amendments to open up the process with less than enthusiasm. It appears unlikely that they will recommend opening conference committee negotiations and caucus meetings when they report to the legislature in January.
Certainly, most citizens do not have the time or desire to sit in on legislative meetings. But, when the doors are closed to the public, journalists and the news media have less ability to track what is happening, and the public is kept in the dark.
Closed-door government meetings should be a relic of the past, like smoke-filled rooms. It is part of the good old boys' network.
Locking the public out of government is wrong. Government of the people, by the people and for the people, should not be afraid to let the public in.