ST. PAUL - Taxpayer funds are allowed to go towards communication services used in political campaigns due to a loophole in how the Legislature regulates reimbursements.
The loophole appears unlikely to be changed this session because no legislator has expressed interest in offering changes to the Rules Committee meeting on Thursday.
Not connected to the times
Taxpayer funds find their way into political campaigns through the communication reimbursement offered by the House of Representatives and the Senate.
The House offers $75 per month and the Senate offers $125 per month. The reimbursement is intended to cover legislative work done on personal communication devices or services like cell phones or the Internet.
The money ends up in political campaigns when a device or service is partially or explicitly used in campaign, then later reimbursed. The activity appears wide spread but intentional, with an informal survey finding 9 of the 10 legislators getting reimbursements.
The common reaction among the surveyed legislators is they never thought about what their reimbursements may be funding because all the communications devices were personally owned by them. Legislators made serious efforts in other areas to keep any political activity very clearly distinct from legislative work.
The problem with the communication reimbursement lies with its minimal reporting and oversight. To obtain it, lawmakers either submit a basic form summarizing their expenses for a given month or submit portions of a copy of their receipts. If the summarizing form is submitted, the reimbursement is treated as taxable income for the lawmaker. If the receipts are submitted, it is treated as an expense that is not taxed. The only portion of the receipts required is the final page with the totaled amount, meaning the receipts will not necessarily contain itemized list of the expenses or calls.
The most notable example was last July when former Sen. Mike Parry was running for congressional office. At the time, he was taking a step further than most legislators to have one phone for legislative work and one phone for his campaign. However, the bill for the campaign phone still ended up being submitted for a reimbursement. When asked about it, Parry said it was a filing mistake and resubmitted with the other bill. Both phones were eventually converted to political work after the legislative session.
The lack of any regulation or oversight in the process made it so that Parry's bill would never been known nor amended if it had not been brought to public attention.
The situation provides sharp contrast with the House and Senates strict regulations on all use of Legislature equipment to prevent any usage for political work. The reason lies in the fact the regulations have not been updated since the Phonegate scandal of the 1990s. During that time, land-lines were heavily used and cell phones were not common. Today, legislators do nearly all their work on personally owned mobile devices like cell phones, iPads and laptop computers, all which lack any serious regulations.
Differing views, but
unlikely to change
While all surveyed legislators said they work very hard to keep political work distinct from any Legislature equipment or funding, their views on the reimbursement loophole varied.
Former Rep. Terry Morrow and Sen. Gary Dahms (R-Redwood Falls) both stopped taking the reimbursement after reading about the loophole last July. Both said they wanted the certainty that they were in no way even accidentally using taxpayer funds for political work.
Morrow said he thought the reimbursement should be discussed to find a better regulation method, and that lawmakers should be surveyed to learn about how they use their communication devices in the Capitol.
Sen. Kathy Sheran (DFL - Mankato) and Morrow said they would not like to see the reimbursement ended. Sheran said it is essential for allowing rural legislators to stay connected with constituents and would be expected of any employer with on-call employees.
Some legislators said that it was a non-issue because it was not possible to determine the funds had gone to political calls in a given month or the legitimate legislative calls made in the same month.
No clear solution or alternative was suggested by the surveyed legislators. Each option, such as requiring additional, separate cell phones for campaigns or having a process to detail each call in a bill, were noted by legislators to likely be too burdensome to be practical.
(Josh Moniz can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org)