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POLITICS: Taxpayers fund partisan legislative employees, publications

ST. PAUL - Fighting between Democrats and Republicans was so intense, the two parties refused to meet in the same room. Even after envoys from the two parties worked out an agreement, Republicans and Democrats would not sign the same document, so...

ST. PAUL - Fighting between Democrats and Republicans was so intense, the two parties refused to meet in the same room.

Even after envoys from the two parties worked out an agreement, Republicans and Democrats would not sign the same document, so each side prepared its own.

The dispute sounds like one of several in Minnesota headlines lately. But this quarrel was in 1857 when Democrats and Republicans struggled to write the state's Constitution.

Some current political flaps inside the Minnesota Capitol today pale by comparison, but observers agree that partisanship is on the rise - and the partisan exchanges often are funded by taxpayers.

An ongoing flap over Secretary of State Mark Ritchie apparently turning names and e-mail addresses obtained by his state office over to his campaign, with some Republicans calling for his resignation, is the latest partisan incident. But politics is everywhere one turns in the Capitol complex.


"The public just rolls its eyes," said Peggy Kerns, Center for Ethics in Government director. "They just hate it."

Not all politicians like the increased partisanship, either. Said the dean of Minnesota House Republicans, Dennis Ozment of Rosemount: "Democracy only succeeds when we work together."

Partisanship soars

Ozment and Kerns, whose job is part of the National Conference of State Legislatures, join other observers in saying partisanship is reaching new levels - for recent history, at least - in Minnesota and other state governments.

Some of that partisanship comes from the system of hiring partisan legislative employees. Fifty-seven percent of Minnesota legislative workers are hired by the four political caucuses. They generally are people paid by state tax money who are hired, at least in part, because of their political views.

Take, for instance, Nov. 30. That is when Democrats took Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty to task over legislation he vetoed earlier in the year, saying the rejected bills could have provided more Minnesotans with jobs.

Words were harsh that day, but perhaps none more so than a headline written by a staffer on a DFL "Fact Check" given to the Capitol press corps: "If class sizes weren't so large, there'd be room for Tim Pawlenty in a remedial math class (he needs it)." The rest of the release rebutted the governor's comment that the state enjoys a record-high budget reserve.

"I don't think it is an ethical violation," Kerns said. "It is a little crass. It might not pass the test whether you should use state letterhead."


Like the "fact check," many other uses of tax money for partisan purposes are less than clear.

Democratic legislators frequently criticize the Republican governor for taking taxpayer-funded trips around the state to promote his initiatives while they are forced to raise money privately the few times they travel.

Ethical questionsExperts say it is not clear whether it is legal or ethical for Republican and Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party lawmakers to gather in a state office building on election nights, as they usually do, and track the vote using not only state offices, but state computers and telephones.

Also unclear is the appropriateness of partisan legislative staffers - on state time - writing poems, parodies and other items attacking the other party.

Professor David Schultz of Hamline University in St. Paul, one of the most quoted political ethics experts in Minnesota, said the line between political expenditures and legitimate official spending is blurry.

"We have to live with that; we are a democracy," Schultz said. "But when it becomes clear that they are just pushing the partisanship issues, then they can't."

State's reputationKerns, based in Denver, said that Minnesota has a reputation as one of the politically cleanest states.

In the arena of partisan staff, Minnesota falls in the middle. Current figures show 265 of the Legislature's 461 workers are considered partisan, a bit higher proportion than when Kern's organization last compiled figures in 2003.


Jesse Ventura brought up the issue of partisan workers during his term as governor. As a third-party member, he complained that legislative Republicans and Democrats have an advantage with so many partisan workers at their disposal.

Federal and state laws forbid government employees from working on campaigns while on the job, but Ventura's point was that an incumbent's news release sent on the state's dime gives an advantage over a challenger.

In at least some jobs, partisans are mandatory, many close to the Legislature say.

"Obviously, they (legislators) want someone they can trust," said Jodi Boyne, communications director for the House Republican caucus.

Partisan workers include secretaries, researchers and people who write news releases. Nonpartisan researchers also are available.

Schultz said Minnesotans would be surprised if they knew how many partisan employees work in the Legislature.

"They wouldn't realize that spoils, patronage is still alive and well," he said.

Tough questionsThe question about what is political, what is policy and what is just plain fun - all funded by taxpayers - is tough to answer. Take a comical publication by House Minority Leader Marty Seifert, R-Marshall.


Seifert put his well-known wit to use earlier this year in producing "Say What? The Official Democrat Dictionary" with materials paid for with tax dollars.

The five-page document - longer than most news releases on the day's top issues - included definitions such as: "Next session: the perfect time to take up any campaign promises Democrats can't keep."

House Majority Leader Tony Sertich, DFL-Chisholm, gave the Seifert-produced document printed on state paper with state equipment a tepid endorsement: "If that is something you want to spend your time doing, I guess that is fine."

Seifert admitted his effort may have gone too far, but he thought it was an educational piece and being released on April Fool's Day, humor was appropriate.

Easing partisanshipReducing partisanship is difficult. Seifert said one way to do that would be to mix legislators' offices instead of housing them in DFL and GOP compounds where there is little interaction between parties.

"When you stay within your own side of the aisle, you tend to be even more harsh on the opposition," Ozment said.

Sertich said compromise is becoming more difficult, and more effort is placed on stopping the other side than promoting one's own ideas.

"It really is what happens after you have the debate," Sertich added. "Do you just retreat into your corners, or do you look for solutions and compromise?"


Seifert said that Minnesotans think they remember a politically peaceful time that never existed.

"They have this lofty feeling of unknown days of when everybody agreed on everything," Seifert said. "That simply has never happened. The state has never agreed unanimously on all the issues of the day."

Davis reports for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Herald.

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