The people’s house?

House autocrats kept the public locked out as Democrats still met with each other and lobbyists on the side

As far back as October, the Speaker of the Minnesota House of Representatives, Rep. Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, put all 134 House members and staff on notice. Buckle up for a third straight locked down legislative session conducted largely online with most members participating from the convenience of home, shielded from public scrutiny and safe from the accountability that comes with in-person committee hearings.

“This decision was not made lightly, but with full consideration for the health and safety of members, staff, and the public,” Speaker Hortman said in a House 2022 Session Operations memo.

Above all, Hortman insisted the State Office Building, the House of Representatives’ nerve center crammed with member and staff offices and legislative hearing rooms, remain closed to the public until further notice. Representatives and staff were urged to work remotely unless it was absolutely necessary for them to risk entering the building due to COVID and unspecified security concerns.

“Anyone unable to demonstrate their authorization will be asked to leave,” a House announcement warned.

While the perils of the pandemic prevented most House DFLers from convening at their offices, dozens of those same members had no qualms about getting together for a group meeting at the River’s Edge Convention Center in St. Cloud in December. During breaks, they even took the time for team building, shopping, and visiting restaurants downtown.

“It was an honor to host my colleagues in St. Cloud, and I’m proud that our community was at the forefront of legislators’ minds as we set our agenda and priorities for the 2022 legislative session,” said Rep. Dan Wolgamott, DFL-St. Cloud, who shared a group photo with dozens of masked members bunched together on social media.

Nor did the COVID crackdown curtail House DFLers’ penchant for in-person fundraisers, though lobbyists were among those locked out of meeting with them in the State Office Building. A flyer for a fundraiser for Rep. Andrew Carlson, DFL-Bloomington, dangled the prospect of mingling with “Special Guest” DFL House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler. Suggested contribution? Anywhere from $50 to $1,000.

“I get all their fundraising invites, but they have no desire to sit down and have a conversation about issues,” said a veteran lobbyist who requested anonymity. “This Zoom legislating is not conducive to public input. When you can’t look somebody in the eye and have a conversation with them, it just makes for bad policy.”

But just prior to the 2022 legislative session, House Republicans began reoccupying their offices, establishing a “freedom zone” on the second and third floors. The speaker’s order for universal masking unless alone in their offices with the door closed was not enforced, despite her threat to block the key cards of serial offenders. Meanwhile, a trip to the fifth floor found DFL offices remained largely dark and abandoned.

“You’re not supposed to be here. We’re not allowed to have anyone in here,” House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said in an interview in his office. “But we don’t really care. We believe the public is entitled to be in the public’s building. So we invite people in, we escort people in all the time.”

Yet weeks into the legislative session, House members were still prohibited from meeting in their offices with constituents.

“I held office hours today at the Capitol,” Rep. Jim Nash, R-Waconia, tweeted. “The Speaker has closed off access to the public to all State Reps. So I met with about a dozen constituents and advocates in the rotunda.”

The prohibition raised concerns across the political spectrum over lack of access and transparency.

“We’ve received dozens of complaints from constituents who don’t understand why they can wear [a] mask and socially distance to safely do anything else in MN except connect with their elected in bldgs. their tax money pays for,” Minnesota Common Cause said on Twitter.

Hortman finally cracked, announcing a partial reopening of the State Office Building in late March, as of this writing. Yet continuing to hold most committee hearings online and closing off the building to the public again for a years-long renovation could perpetuate a troubling trend for some observers.

“Closed government is a recipe for trouble. Between the pandemic and then before it the remodeling of the State Capitol, the legislative process has been largely closed to the public for years,” said Hamline University political science professor David Schultz. “…While the pandemic is not over, there must be reasonable precautions that can take place to again bring back public deliberations to all of the state government.”