Political Chatter: Legislators Look For Investigations

Minnesota lawmakers do more than legislate; they also sometimes ask people to investigate, and they want to see those reports.

Such is the case in a couple of recent issues: a state worker who seemingly emailed opposition to a northern Minnesota oil pipeline and a Commerce Department official accused of improperly ordering destruction of documents.

The St. Paul Pioneer Press early this year broke a story about an email Minnesota Pollution Control Agency employee Scott Lucas wrote to a group of environmental interests that a study “could be a very useful tool for us to use when making our case against Sandpiper in this area of the state.”

Pipeline proponents cried foul and said the email proved the Dayton administration opposes the Sandpiper Pipeline that is to carry North Dakota crude oil across northern Minnesota. Gov. Mark Dayton long has said he favors the pipeline.

The pollution agency says it has completed an investigation, and Lucas will not be disciplined. However, Pollution Control Commissioner John Linc Stine refuses to release the $4,670 report prepared by a private business, citing a state law that prohibits release of personnel data.

Now, eight Republican legislators, mostly from northern Minnesota, are asking that details of the investigation be released.

“I remain deeply concerned over the unprecedented delay plaguing our permitting process for construction of crude oil pipelines in Minnesota,” said Rep. Dale Lueck, R-Aitkin. “We need to understand that delaying moving crude oil off our rail lines and into much safer modern new pipelines presents an unnecessary risk to public safety.”

Republicans also want to see an investigation into whether a Commerce Department ordered some documents destroyed.

Rep. Peggy Scott, R-Andover, asked Legislative Auditor Jim Nobles to look into whether the documents should have been saved because they were public information.

Former Commerce Department official Timothy Vande Hey filed a lawsuit Thursday alleging sexual harassment and retaliation over his refusal to destroy documents.

Vande Hey said the agency Deputy Commissioner Anne O’Connor made sexual advances. He also claims O’Connor ordered his staff to destroy or keep private documents that should have been made public.

Scott told Nobles that the Vande Hey case raises questions about the department’s “commitment to transparency.”

“This charge echoes concerns that agencies are often less than forthcoming in response to request for data,” she wrote. “Faithful adherence to open records law is essential to good government. … The actions of state agencies are often opaque to legislators and the public.”

How long for Bakk?

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk sat down with a half-dozen reporters and promptly announced that they had been scooped because he just told some other journalists that he is retiring.

As one reporter typed on her smartphone, he quickly inserted that he was joking. Just joking, and he is running this year.

Later, the Cook Democrat made reference to being near the end of his legislative career (which began in the House in 1994). He also told the reporters that he long has planned to “stand on my truck’s tailgate” when he turns 62 this June 8, look around and decide where he goes from there.

When asked what happens after the 2016 election, Bakk replied: “Who knows?”

Disputing his retirement talk, Bakk said that if he wins another four-year term this fall, he could well decide to go for another term after that and he might want to be included in drawing up new legislative district lines after the 2020 census.

Clinton condemns steel dumping

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton said little about the steel industry before Minnesota’s precinct caucuses, but recently has come out strongly against Chinese steel dumping that affects many parts of the country, including the Iron Range.

Chinese officials recently said the country will continue to produce more steel than needed, which likely will result in their continue selling steel to the United States at prices lower than the American industry can charge.

“As president, I’ll aggressively pursue trade cases and impose consequences when China breaks the rules by dumping its cheap products in our markets,” Clinton said. “And I’ll oppose efforts to grant China so-called ‘market economy’ status, which would weaken our tools for dealing with this behavior. I’ve gone toe-to-toe with China’s top leaders on some of the toughest issues we face. I know how they operate, and they know that if I’m president, the games are going to end.”

The issue is important for Minnesota’s Iron Range because taconite mined there goes to make steel at American plants. But many of the mines are closed, permanently or temporarily, because American steel plants are closed.

IRRRB committee proposed

A key House Republican has legislation to change how the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board operates.

A legislative auditor report has raised questions whether the current board structure is constitutional, in part because the board made up of legislators makes spending decisions. The state Constitution requires the Legislature and governor to approve spending.

Rep. Tom Hackbarth, R-Cedar, introduced a bill to establish a nine-member commission to run the agency. Six would be legislators from any part of the state and three would be Iron Range citizens. The current board is all Iron Range legislators.

“The OLA (auditor) report raised serious questions about how taxpayer money is being used and whether businesses are following through on job creation promises,” Hackbarth said. “Taxpayers, especially citizens on the Iron Range, should support this bill. Increased oversight will help improve economic development in the region instead of just watching our tax dollars go down the drain.”

Sen. Tom Bakk, D-Cook, plans legislation to keep the board pretty much as is, but to require any spending to receive governor approval.