Today, we are at a crossroads. On one hand, we have the growing threats of climate change which threaten us with fires, droughts, and violent weather. On the other, we have government that is increasingly being captured by special interests which, as a result of the 2010 Supreme Court decision known as Citizens United, are able to flood the campaign coffers of incumbents.
Here in Minnesota, legislative caucuses of both parties have fully embraced this new wealth. In 2020, the caucuses went into the campaigns with more than $26 million. If this were to be averaged out evenly between the 201 members of the Legislature, the amount available to each incumbent would be a staggering $130,000. And this is money only from the caucus and does not include funds from the party or contributions to candidate committees.
This, along with partisan staffs that match or exceed those of political parties, certainly gives incumbents a huge re-election advantage.
But it comes at a cost to the public. A recent study by two professors at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota concluded that generous donors were accorded special treatment by legislators, including being able to “shape“ legislation.
We fully agree that money influences policy. For two legislative sessions, we have repeatedly petitioned the governor and Legislature for hearings on legislation designed to protect the waters of Lake Superior and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
Time and again, we pointed out the dangers of allowing the PolyMet and Twin Metals projects to become reality. Others petitioned for answers to Enbridge’s Line 3 pipeline project, which even the Minnesota Department of Commerce declared was not needed. At no point was there any apparent willingness of elected officials to hold legislative hearings or respond to legitimate inquiries. The governor and legislative leaders simply stonewalled. We could not even get an answer as to why a request was denied from Minnesota’s health community for a health study of the drinking waters that would be affected by seepage from the mines.
We pointed out the record of international corruption and environmental damage caused by the foreign corporations which own PolyMet and Twin Metals. We further noted the appalling lack of safety involved with Enbridge’s Line 3. We lauded the governor of Michigan for taking decisive action in ordering an Enbridge pipeline project across Lake Michigan to close.
Here in Minnesota, though, we have been unable to even get a legislative hearing — while big-money donors are able to “shape“ legislation.
Many legislators will say this is not “pay to play.“ If it’s not, then please tell the public what it is.
All of us have a responsibility to play a role in our governance. We must engage and engage now before it is too late. We cannot allow the forces of greed and the short term to convert public assets into private gain. Our quality drinking water is our most valuable and essential asset. It must not be for sale.
We can begin by adopting a constitutional amendment imposing term limits on Minnesota’s constitutional officers and legislators. Caucus fundraising also must be abolished along with partisan staffs and replaced by a system that provides robust public funding for campaigns, as is done elsewhere.
As authors of “The Future is Today“ (thefutureistoday.info/), we welcome a broad public debate on our entire series of recommendations, allowing us to build a government that is focused on the long-term well-being of the public — and only on that.
Arne Carlson was governor of Minnesota from 1991 to 1999. Chris Knopf is executive director of the St. Paul-based nonprofit Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness (friends-bwca.org). Tom Berkelman was a DFL state representative from Duluth from 1977 to 1983. Janet Entzel was a DFL state representative from Minneapolis from 1975 to 1984. And Duke Skorich is president of Zenith Research Group in Duluth.
This column first appeared in our sister publication, the Duluth News Tribune.