here for PDF format
for participants' responses to this interview
Meeting with State Rep.
Civic Caucus, 8301
Creekside Circle, Bloomington, MN 55437
Friday, June 27, 2008
speaker: State Rep. Steve Simon,
St. Louis Park
Johnson, chair; Chuck Clay (by phone), Paul Gilje, Jim Hetland (by phone),
and Jim Olson (by phone)
Context of the meeting--The
Civic Caucus is exploring several possible changes in the state's
elections system. Today the Civic Caucus is meeting with a legislator
who has introduced several bills for change.
Welcome and introduction--Verne
and Paul welcomed and introduced State Rep.
Steve Simon. Simon represents MN House District 44A, St Louis
Park and Hopkins. Simon earned his Bachelors Degree in Political Science
from Tufts University, where he was selected as the Harry S. Truman
Scholar from Minnesota his senior year. From there, he went on to the
University of Minnesota Law School. After law school, Simon worked as an
assistant attorney general under Skip Humphrey and Mike Hatch. Simon was
first elected to the MN House in 2004. In addition to his work as a State
Representative, Simon also works as an attorney at Robins, Kaplan, Miller
& Ciresi in Minneapolis.
Comments and discussion--During
Simon's comments and in discussion with the Civic Caucus the following
points were raised:
1. Transportation transparency law enacted--Beginning
in his first House term, in 2005, Simon said he repeatedly encountered
difficultly in learning the priority status of reconstruction of Hwy. 100
through his district. The Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT)
kept giving evasive answers as to when the project would be scheduled. It
wasn't a question of wanting to meddle in MnDOT affairs;l it was simply a
desire to know where a project ranked relative to other projects.
of those difficulties, Simon proposed a transportation transparency law in
2005 to require MnDOT to publish a report annually on where major
projects--$25 million in the metro area and $10 million in the rest of the
state--stand at a given time. MnDOT would be free to change priorities
from time to time; the Legislature wouldn't remove priority-setting from
MnDOT. It was simply a desire to know, once each year, where all projects
ranked at that time.
was enacted in 2008, and the first report will be due on January 15, 2009,
2. Maintain an impartial judiciary--Simon
said he is carrying a bill to implement the recommendations of the Quie
commission to avoid wide-open political campaigns for judges in
Minnesota. The commission recommends a merit-based appointments process.
regards this issue as critical to the future of the state--despite largely
disinterest on the part of the electorate. No one ever brings up the
issue when he door-knocks, he said.
concerned because the public trusts the judiciary to be fair and
impartial. Yet in light of recent court decisions on freedom of speech,
candidates for judge now are free to indicate how they would rule on
certain issues, to seek political endorsement, and to seek and accept
campaign contributions from anyone, including people appearing before the
aren't in the game; they're officiating the game, he said. No one would
stand for allowing Major League baseball teams make gifts to the umpires
or for umpires to declare in advance how they would rule, Simon said.
proposed change is opposed by the district judges association. Their
opposition is centered on a provision that judges would be subject to
periodic retention elections, in which the electorate would decide whether
they would be allowed to remain in office. There'd be no opponent. Some
judges fear that they'd be subject to last-minute "vote no" campaigns,
which judges would be unable to answer.
Simon said that as soon as the first round of retention elections is held, judges will see that their concerns are unfounded.
Virtually all judges will be retained in retention elections, he contended. (Simon's bill does not contain a Quie recommendation that judges
be identified on the ballot as "qualified" or "not qualified", as determined by an evaluation commission. Legislators thought the proposal too
heavy-handed, and smacked of telling voters how to vote, he said.)
persons also oppose moving to merit-based selection because they believe
the current election system offers the best opportunity for judges with
strong views on certain issues to reach the bench, Simon said.
3. Possible role for the Minnesota Supreme
Court--Simon was asked to comment on a recommendation in the
recent Civic Caucus statement on judicial selection that the Minnesota
Supreme Court might be able to make changes in its rules of judicial
procedure. The Civic Caucus statement specifically mentioned the
possibility that lawyers and others appearing before a judge could be
required to disclose to appropriate clerks of court political
contributions they have made on behalf of the judge. Simon suggested
that another area to be explored is whether judges who had spoken out in
campaigns on certain issues could be disallowed from hearing cases
involving those issues.
4. No current limits on contributions to
judicial campaigns--Currently, state law limits the amounts
that anyone can contribute to a candidate for Governor ($2,000) or to a
candidate for the Legislature ($500). But no such limit exists for judges,
Simon said. When the law was written no one contemplated the need for
such limits, because political campaigns for judges weren't allowed
anyway. Over the last two legislative sessions, Simon said he has tried
unsuccessfully to get limits imposed. He said he wasn't concerned what
number would be selected as a limit. He just felt there should be one.
Some district judges were opposed; others said they weren't opposed but
wanted the limits to be part of a larger package. In any event, no limit
has been set.
5. Improving grass-roots influence in the party
endorsement-nominating process--Simon supports steps that would
broaden citizen influence--and reduce that of narrow special interests--in
the process of selecting a party's nominee. He said he likes Instant
Runoff Voting (IRV), because it gives people a chance to rank candidates
in order of preference and, thereby, reveal the intensity of voter support
for various candidates. He prefers the term "ranked choice voting",
because "instant runoff voting" is misleading. No runoff election
6. Advance the date of the state primary--Minnesota's
September primary election is one of the latest among the 50 states. Only
New York and Washington have later primaries, he said. A major problem
with the later primary is that it disenfranchises
military personnel, who are overseas. There's not enough time between
the primary and general elections to get the ballots distributed and
returned, he said.
sponsored a bill to advance the primary date to June. However, some
legislators oppose the change. The Legislature is in session until late
May, and some legislators fear that they'd be confined to the Capitol and
unable to campaign against challengers back in their home districts.
Simon said that incumbents would have an advantage because they'd be in
the news from the Capitol all the time.
7. Support for a presidential preference
primary--Simon recalled the unprecedented turnout at
Minnesota's precinct caucuses last February. Lots of first-time caucus
attendees were present, but many of them might also be identified as
"last-time attendees", he said, because of the virtual impossibility of
accommodating so many people.
precinct caucuses might serve a good purpose in letting people discuss
issues, but they can't work as a vehicle for expressing a preference for
President, he said. Thus, Simon supports a presidential preference
primary. In response to a question, he said he'd support letting voters
rank candidates for President in order of preference, along the lines of
8. Reluctant support for outdoors
constitutional amendment--A Civic Caucus member noted that the
2008 Legislature placed a constitutional amendment on the ballot for
November 2008 that will dedicate a portion of state taxes for years to
come to certain functions. The member also noted that a
legislatively-created citizens group will make an official recommendation
on how some of the funds are to be distributed. Another member expressed
concern that other state functions such as education would be expected to
seek revenue protection in the constitution. Simon was asked why, as a
Civic Caucus statement indicated earlier this year, the Legislature is
abdicating its responsibility.
replied that he doesn't want Minnesota to become like California, which
refers many issues to voters annually. He said he started with
skepticism toward the proposed Minnesota constitutional amendment on
outdoors, water, and the arts. But he concludes that the amendment offers
a practical solution to legitimate funding needs for these functions. A
proposed citizens group, although officially created, will have only the
power to recommend how money will be distributed, he said. The
Legislature will retain final authority.
9. Importance of building trust with voters on
use of funds--Commenting on a Civic Caucus member's observation
about opposition to state government spending, Simon said he believes that
government must pay more attention to accountability and transparency.
He cited a case where state agencies unwittingly were purchasing more
computers than needed, simply because they none of the agencies knew what
the others were doing.
10. Undecided on change in legislative
redistricting--Simon is undecided on a proposal to place
redistricting in the hands of a commission, with the Legislature retaining
authority to accept or reject a commission-prepared plan. He said he
needs to study the question more closely.
11. Minnesota's partial public financing plan
still a model for the nation--Simon said he won a national
scholarship award in 1990 while as a college student he wrote a paper on
the Minnesota system of partial public financing of campaigns. Aside
from the serious matter of independent contributions, he said that races
for Minnesota legislative seats are much less costly than for comparable
races across the nation. He said he supports immediate and complete
online disclosure of campaign receipts and expenditures.
12. Financing via legislative caucuses--It
was noted that one of the big independent-expenditure groups involved in
campaign finance are the Democratic and Republican Caucuses of the
Minnesota House and Senate--a total of four such groups. These groups
aren't governed by the rules affecting direct contributions to a
candidate's campaign, so they can accept unlimited contributions. These
groups will provide financing on behalf of a candidate but without
connection to the candidate. Thus, Simon said, their efforts might not
always be in line with--or welcomed by--a candidate's campaign. He
recalled a campaign in which the caucus distributed literature that
strongly attacked his opponent, in ways that Simon himself would never
caucuses get intimately involved in campaigns, they have only one
objective in mind--to get the candidate elected or another candidate
defeated. They don't have strings attached to their funding that would
obligate a candidate to adhere to caucus positions, he said.
13. Less polarization in the 2008 Legislature?--Interests
were more aligned in favor of a successful conclusion in the 2008
Legislature than in many previous sessions, Simon said. A successful
conclusion was in the best interests of the Governor and the majority
party in both Houses. Also, he suspects that Margaret Anderson Kelliher,
the House Speaker, had the ability to be a moderating force between
Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller.
public, Simon believes, is ahead of the Legislature in wanting to get
beyond petty partisanship. The people want public officials who can
disagree without being disagreeable, he said. Distrust among elected
officials is more of a problem than disagreement, he said.
14. Thanks--On behalf of the Civic
Caucus, Verne thanked Simon for meeting with the Civic Caucus.