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Slowing the revolving door

ST. PAUL — A Rochester lawmaker is backing a bill requiring a "cooling-off period" before former lawmakers can begin lobbying lawmakers again.

Tina Liebling.jpg
Tina Liebling

ST. PAUL — A Rochester lawmaker is backing a bill requiring a "cooling-off period" before former lawmakers can begin lobbying lawmakers again.

Rep. Tina Liebling, DFL-Rochester, is sponsoring a measure that would bar former lawmakers and high-ranking legislative staff from lobbying legislators for a year. The Minnesota House already has a similar rule on the books for lawmakers, but that rule is routinely ignored.

"I was told, 'Well, the ban only applies to sitting legislators.' Kind of a Catch-22 there," she said.

Liebling said her biggest concern is that a legislator who is tasked with working in the public interest could be offered a high-paying lobbying job by powerful interests and take it. In fact, she has personally refused to meet with lawmakers who have gone straight from their House seats to lobbying.

"I just think there should be a cooling-off period, and I think the public has a right to expect that," Liebling said.

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And the liberal Rochester lawmaker has support from an unlikely political ally. Conservative Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, is a co-sponsor of the bill. He agrees with Liebling that lawmakers shouldn't be able to leave the Legislature and then immediately begin lobbying former colleagues. He is particularly concerned about lawmakers who resign their seats specifically to take a lobbying job.

"That's really shaky ground ethically for people who made that commitment to their constituents to serve and their constituents placed their faith in them," Drazkowski said.

At the federal level, former U.S. House members are prohibited from lobbying Congress for a year and former senators are barred from doing it for two years. At least 34 states have these so-called "revolving door laws," aimed at slowing down the trend of lawmakers becoming lobbyists.. Eight states — including Iowa — ban former lawmakers from lobbying legislators for two years, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures .

There have been some recent high-profile examples of lawmakers making the switch to lobbying. In 2015, longtime Rep. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, left the House and became a health care lobbyist. In February 2016, Abeler won election to the Minnesota Senate. Also in 2015, former House Taxes Committee Chairwoman Ann Lenczewski, DFL-Bloomington, left the House and became a lobbyist.

Not everyone is a fan of Liebling's bill. Sen.. Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, said he sees no evidence of former lawmakers-turned-lobbyists getting preferential treatment.

"I just think bills are either good ideas or bad ideas, but the idea that it would depend on who the lobbyist is is something I really don't understand," Senjem said.

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