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Opinion: DFL drops ball on ethics law

The DFL Party blew a great opportunity last session to strengthen ethics laws governing state lawmakers.

And make no mistake — there’s room for improvement.

Minnesota’s campaign and ethics laws received a D-plus rating in 2011 from the national Center for Public Integrity.

That’s bad, but the devil is in the details: That D-plus is actually a composite grade from 14 categories. Here’s how Minnesota scored in a few select areas:

The state received a D or an F in lobbying disclosure, political financing, legislative accountability, judicial accountability, and ethics enforcement agencies.

That’s where it needs the most work — and that’s where the DFL dropped the ball by failing to act last session.

The state scored highest (As and Bs) in procurement, state budget processes, internal auditing and state pension fund management. That’s good: State money is being carefully tracked.

It got Cs in public access to information, executive accountability and civil service management. There’s room for improvement there as well.

To be fair, no state did all that well. Minnesota was ranked right in the middle — 25 out of 50 states.

South Dakota got an F. North Dakota got a D-minus. Iowa and Wisconsin got high and low Cs.

Of particular concern is real or perceived conflict of interest problems with state lawmakers and local officials, like several legislators who work as independent insurance agents and could conceivably benefit from their involvement in state health insurance issues.

One DFL leader, Sen. Tom Bakk of Cook, has come under fire for supporting salary increases for Senate staff that included his wife, Laura, whose pay is now $68,561 a year.

The bipartisan Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board unsuccessfully pushed several bills to strengthen the state’s weak ethics law.

One would have provided a clear definition of what constitutes a “conflict of interest” for a public official.

And it would have gone beyond how a public official votes, making it illegal to use the official’s office or public resources in any matter in which the official “has a financial interest.”

It defines a financial interest as any income or business investment over $2,500, or any property valued at over $5,000, with some common-sense exceptions.

It extends the law to include the financial interests of an official’s spouse and underage children, and those customers of an official who owns his own business.

It requires officials to file a more detailed statement every year disclosing these financial interests, as well as to disclose any potential conflict of interest within 24 hours.

And it prohibits an official from taking any action on a matter in which the official has a financial interest.

We are less concerned that the Legislature is open to lobbyist-paid get-togethers again.

The so-called Marty law, named after its author, Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, has for 20 years prohibited lawmakers from accepting any gifts of value, including  legislative parties and receptions paid for by special-interest groups.

The Legislature is getting some heat for lifting that ban this year, but in this age of bitter partisanship, anything that gets lawmakers from opposing parties talking to each other is a good thing.

They should spend that time together working on better conflict of interest laws.