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Minnesota Democracy Rundown 11/03/2017

Minnesota Democracy Rundown is a recurring curation by LWV Minnesota’s Civic Engagement Manager, Nick Harper. It summarizes recent news reports, research studies, and current events articles that discuss important democracy issues that affect Minnesota.

Government Transparency and Data Practices

The Minnesota Data Practices Act ensures government transparency by allowing Minnesotans to view or copy public information on request. It received much attention this week.

Webster v. Hennepin County: On Tuesday, October 31, the Minnesota Supreme Court heard oral arguments on an important case regarding government transparency. Independent journalist Tony Webster had previously won a lawsuit against Hennepin County in which he alleged the county did not follow the requirements of the Act. In a hearing last year, an administrative law judge found that Hennepin County’s failure to recordkeeping systems that were easily accessible violated the Act. After the Court of Appeals overturned the administrative law judge’s finding, Webster sought further review from the Minnesota Supreme Court. Hennepin County continues to argue that they are unable to search their electronic records. Watch a recording of the oral arguments.

Legislative Commission on Data Practices: A joint legislative commission held an informational hearing on multiple bills related to the Act. They discussed a bill that would make more video recordings possessed by governments available to the public for viewing. Lawmakers also learned more about a bill that would require governments to retain electronic correspondence, like email, for at least three years. Other data practices bills were discussed as well. Journalists and transparency advocates argued for maximum access to information, while local governments and state agencies argued that transparency is too costly. Watch the hearing.

Tax Reform Bill and the Johnson Amendment

The House Republican tax bill released on Thursday, November 2, would remove IRS regulations that prohibit nonprofit, religious organizations, like churches, temples, and mosques, from engaging in partisan political activity. The current rules, known colloquially as the Johnson Amendment, bar charitable organizations from endorsing, opposing, or funding a political party or candidate. The tax bill would create an exception to allow religious organizations to endorse candidates, but not other charitable organizations. Allowing religious organizations to influence elections would allow donors to make anonymous contributions to religious organizations and receive a tax deduction while doing so, which would then in turn be used to endorse a candidate. Thus, more “dark money” would flow into our elections, providing tax deductions to wealthy donors, and injecting partisan politics into religious organizations.

Russian Influence and Online Political Ads

If you read the previous issue of Minnesota Democracy Rundown, you already know that Russian interference in American elections through social media is a hot issue. The House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence held a hearing with testimony from representatives from social media and other technology giants like Facebook, Twitter, and Google. The companies claimed that they were interested in working with Congress to develop a solution. Lawmakers did not believe them, noting that the companies’ CEOs did not bother to testify, but instead sent representatives to read written statements. Transparency and good government advocates also believe that social media and technology companies cannot be trusted to regulate themselves, as the companies suggest. The companies originally misled the public about the number of Russian-linked accounts and advertisements that were created. They also claimed not to have any knowledge of these ads, despite the fact that on at least one occasion, the ad buyers paid with Russian currency.

Joint Fundraising Committees

Former Democratic National Committee Chair Donna Brazile alleged that former presidential nominee Hilary Clinton “took over” a joint fundraising committee to pour money into the candidate’s political campaign. President Trump alleged on Twitter that such activity was a violation of campaign finance laws, but the Supreme Court held in the 2014 case McCutcheon v. FEC that such activity would be legal. In fact, Trump’s campaign also took advantage of the same system. Many campaign finance reformers are afraid that this activity will become the new normal.