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Excerpts from recent Minnesota editorials

December 18, 2017

Minneapolis Star Tribune, Dec. 14

As Dayton’s pick, Ms. Smith goes to Washington

Minnesota Lt. Gov. Tina Smith will soon head to Washington, where for the next year she’ll fill the U.S. Senate seat of the departing Al Franken, seek to mend the hurt feelings of some over his resignation and compete in what is likely to be a bruising 2018 campaign.

It is a daunting series of tasks that will call upon every bit of the organizational skills, policy knowledge and political smarts that have made Smith a trusted figure among DFLers. But for all her strengths, Smith came to elective life comparatively late, starting when Gov. Mark Dayton elevated her from his chief of staff to a high-profile second. He leaned on her heavily in the 2014 election as a surrogate and in legislative sessions, where she sometimes represented him in end-of-session negotiations — a rare level of responsibility for a lieutenant governor.

But it remains to be seen whether she can successfully navigate the Senate while waging a costly statewide campaign to keep her seat in 2018. Republicans have already started labeling her appointment an inside job. She may also yet face a challenge from within her party, although much of the DFL establishment on Wednesday appeared to be lining up in at least a temporary show of unity.

Franken aided that with a gracious statement that said Smith’s record shows she will be “an effective senator who knows how to work across party lines to get things done for Minnesota,” and he pledged his support with the transition. Smith has said that while she will do the job her way, she hopes Franken staffers will stay on — a smart move that should speed her learning curve.

There are other things to like about this decision. Dayton was wise not to choose a “caretaker,” but someone who is willing to commit to the seat. Smith also has the policy chops to go hard from Day One and a working relationship with U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar. Together, the two will make Minnesota only the fourth state in the nation with two female senators, after California, New Hampshire and Washington. At this juncture in history, that makes Smith’s appointment an important statement about ensuring that women have a strong voice at the nation’s capital.

Minnesota deserves the strongest possible candidates in 2018. Smith will have a chance to prove herself, but nothing is preordained. We hope that Republicans will choose a strong candidate and that both parties will engage in a substantive, robust campaign.

There are troubling aspects to Smith’s appointment as well. Dayton loses a trusted adviser and partner and now must welcome Republican state Senate President Michelle Fischbach, 52, of Paynesville, into his inner circle. That will create a new dynamic and possibly the chance for a renewed cooperation, but it’s starting off badly. Senate Republicans, with their one-seat majority, are already signaling that Fischbach can serve as Dayton’s lieutenant without giving up her Senate seat. That has triggered what could be another court brawl between Dayton and the GOP.

Strap in, Minnesota. Political turbulence will continue in 2018.

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St. Cloud Times, Dec. 15

Strive to fill lieutenant governor spot outside of court

When it comes to determining who should be Minnesota’s next lieutenant governor, Republican legislative leaders and DFL Gov. Mark Dayton should just file the papers now and reserve time for a hearing before the Minnesota Supreme Court.

That might seem extreme because there are common-sense options worth pursuing. However, recent history shows leadership on both sides would rather fight in court than compromise, especially regarding how the state Constitution disseminates power.

Witness the monthslong court battle prompted by Dayton’s veto of funding for the legislative branch after it passed budget bills intended to do an end run around some of his objectives last session. The long-term outcome of that court fight is still unclear.

Now Dayton’s appointment of Lt. Gov. Tina Smith to fill U.S. Sen. Al Franken’s seat until the 2018 election is raising another constitutional dilemma about replacing Smith in the largely ceremonial role.

The state’s Constitution says the Senate president — Republican Sen. Michelle Fischbach from Paynesville — automatically replaces Smith. Citing the Constitution and a 119-year-old court ruling, Fischbach and Republicans say she can do both jobs.

DFLers disagree, citing a clause in the Constitution forbidding legislators from holding any other state or federal office beyond a postmaster or notary public.

Partisanship is motivating arguments from both sides.

For example, Republicans hold a one-vote lead in the Senate. If Fischbach gives up her Senate seat, which has been solid red for decades, a Democrat could conceivably win it and change who controls the Senate. On the flip side, staunch Republican Fischbach would become governor if something awful happens to the liberal Dayton.

Such scenarios foster intense debate among political junkies but do little good for the governance of Minnesota.

Fischbach herself told Twin Cities media last week of a potential common-sense solution. In seeking to do both jobs, she acknowledged she would not be part of the Dayton administration’s high-level strategy sessions.

That’s a good start, but would she and Republicans also agree that if Dayton was unable to serve, a transition of power would allow Democrats to retain the seat until Election Day 2018?

Another option being discussed is drafting a plan that essentially allows Fischbach to keep her Senate seat while allowing Dayton to name Smith’s replacement.

Admittedly, those approaches might not fit perfectly with the Constitution and certainly would not please all the political players involved.

Still, if they (or any other reasonable idea) can avoid a lengthy court fight, they are worth pursuing.

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Mankato Free Press, Dec. 13

Harassment policy: House proposal strengthens process

A proposed change to how the Minnesota House handles sexual harassment complaints through its Ethics Committee improves the current process, which is filled with loopholes and political roadblocks.

The proposal by Rep. John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul, and Rep. Marion O’Neill, R-Maple Lake, will open up the process, set specific deadlines for complaints and strengthen due process rules.

The biggest and most important change will remove the restriction that only House members can file complaints. Under the proposed change, members of the public, lobbyists or executive branch employees, as well as House members, could file complaints. Those complaints would go to the House majority and minority leaders, who would then be official complainants for the purposes of the Ethics Committee.

The initial complaints can be anonymous but must be made under oath. The complaints would be required to be sent from the minority and majority leaders to the Ethics Committee within seven days and a probable cause hearing must be held within 30 days of that.

The new proposal also calls for an outside independent employment attorney to investigate the case and submit a report to the Ethics Committee, who would then determine probable cause.

Upon a finding of probable cause, a contested case hearing would be held on the merits of the case, no longer than 60 days after the probable cause determination.

The information in the case would be private up to the point of the contested case hearing, which would be a public hearing.

And finally, the Ethics Committee chair must issue a disposition in cases no later than 90 days after receiving the complaint.

The reform of Ethics Committee procedures for handling harassment complaints will significantly improve the process. There will be little chance of someone sending a complaint to the Ethics Committee to die a slow death.

We would like to see more transparency along the way to the contested case hearing, as key decisions at the probable cause stage could still be made in secret.

But the bipartisan effort in the House represents a good first step to putting teeth into the harassment complaint procedures, ensuring due process and ensuring that no one has to work in a harassing work environment without recourse.

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