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Senjem provision loosens Legislature's 'gift ban'

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Lobbying groups will once again be able to throw receptions with free food and drinks for lawmakers thanks to a provision backed by a Rochester senator.

Republican Sen. Dave Senjem successfully amended a campaign finance bill in this year's session that would allow lawmakers and legislative employees to attend these receptions without having to pay as long as all 201 lawmakers are invited and given at least five days' notice. The amendment repealed part of the state's 20-year-old gift ban that prohibited lawmakers from accepting free food and drinks at these types of receptions unless they were making a speech or answering questions as part of a program.

Senjem said many lawmakers believe that getting rid of those lobbyist-funded receptions has hurt lawmakers' ability to get to know members from both sides of the aisle and build important working relationships. Lawmakers dubbed it the "Marty Law," because it was sponsored by Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville.

"From the day I got (to the Legislature), everybody complained about the Marty 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 said.

Critics say getting rid of the ban means large lobbying groups with deep pockets will have a chance to curry favor with lawmakers, giving them an advantage over smaller groups and the average citizen.

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"There is a lot of good sociological evidence that suggests gift-giving develops friends and relationships. I call it the Santa Claus syndrome. Everybody loves Santa Claus. Why? Because Santa Claus gives us presents," said Hamline University law professor David Schultz, who is an expert in government ethics.

In the past, groups like the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, the Minnesota Vikings and Education Minnesota would host large receptions for lawmakers. That all changed after lawmakers approved the gift ban law in 1993. Its passage followed the so-called "Phonegate" scandal, in which some Minnesota House members were found to have been using state toll-free access codes for personal use.

Bill author Marty agrees that there has been a deterioration in relationships among lawmakers. But he said it is ridiculous to blame that on a law that prevents lobbying groups from wining and dining legislators.

"The idea that we cannot be sociable unless somebody else is paying for our dinner is nuts. I have lots of friends that I socialize with and we don't expect some outside group to pay for our dinner," Marty said.

He added that only four senators were in the Legislature prior to the ban and know what it was like. Senjem was not one of them. Senjem's floor amendment to lift the ban passed 34 to 28 with all southeast Minnesota senators voting for it except for one — Sen. Vicki Jensen, DFL-Owatonna. It was supported by both House Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, and Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie.

Minnesota has one of the strongest gift ban laws in the nation, even with this latest exception, according to Natalie Wood, with the National Conference of State Legislatures' Center for Ethics and Government. It is one of nine states dubbed the "no cup of coffee" states because of its strict gift laws. There are 31 other states that have monetary thresholds for gifts and the others allow any gifts as long as they don't result in undue influence.

Even the states with the strictest gift bans have exemptions — often for food and beverages. In Florida, the state's gift ban has an exemption allowing flowers to be bought for lawmakers to be on their desk on the first day of the legislative session.

Bakk said he supported loosening the gift ban laws because these sorts of social activities are needed to help legislators and staff get to know each other personally. He said it also has the potential to boost attendance at events like the the annual Rochester on Tour at the Capitol reception. In the past, a basket has been put out where lawmakers can toss in $5 to help pay for the reception.

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"I don't look at it as buying any access or buying any special treatment when everybody's invited," Bakk said.

Also tucked within the larger campaign finance bill is a provision that allows individual donations of up to $200 to be given to a candidate without having to disclose any donor information. The threshold used to be $100.

"If I am a lobbyist, I can literally give $200 to every legislator in the state of Minnesota and that will not be disclosed," Schultz said.

Marty successfully amended the campaign finance bill to require all campaign donations made by lobbyists be reported, but that provision was stripped out of the final bill in conference committee. He called the relaxed campaign disclosure requirements "obscene" and said he will push to reverse both this and allowing lawmakers to enjoy free food and drinks at lobbying groups' receptions. But in order for such legislation to pass, he said, it will take an outcry from the public.

Senjem said if receptions get out of control, with lawmakers being given, say, bottles of whiskey and the like, then lawmakers will have to revisit it. But he said he expects the law's requirement, that all lawmakers be invited, to limit the potential for problems.

"The idea is if everybody is invited, then we are believing that this is going to be reasonable as it unfolds," he said. "If it's not reasonable, I'm sure there will be limits put on it."

Related Topics: DAVE SENJEM
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