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by Steve Timmer
Feb 6, 2016, 8:00 PM

Eric’s “gotcha” question on Almanac

On Friday evening, February 5th, State Auditor Rebecca Otto was interviewed at the top of the Almanac program on TPT to discuss her just-filed lawsuit, filed in Ramsey County, to re-establish her authority to audit counties — which are sometimes prone to forget that they are inferior units of government, existing solely at the sufferance of the state — a function, by the way, that the Office of State Auditor was established to perform in the first place, when the state’s constitution was ratified.*

This is what is known in state constitution separation of powers doctrine as a “core function.” There is actually a well-developed body of law in Minnesota on the separation of powers and core functions. We take that stuff seriously.

As it happens — not As It Happens, another public media program — Professor David Schultz penned a story about the grounds for Auditor Otto’s lawsuit. You could actually see him in the background on Almanac that evening as part of the panel there to pick the bones of the Iowa caucuses.

I kept yelling at the teevee, Ask Professor Schultz about the lawsuit! But alas, nobody listened. And towards the end of the interview, Eric asked, “But the state didn’t join in your lawsuit?”

Well, no, Eric, that’s why Auditor Otto had to file it in the first place. And therein hangs the tale. I really hope you know that Eric; I will give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you do, which is why I expected a little more nuance from you.

A much better question would have been, Why did Attorney General Lori Swanson (not “the state”) refrain from defending the constitutional authority of your [Rebecca Otto’s] office?

The answer to that question is, Because Lori Swanson wants to be the governor.

And General Swanson views Rebecca Otto as a potential rival for the DFL endorsement and nomination.

The privatization of the audit function happened in classic end-of-session log-rolling shenanigans in 2015, a collaboration between the leaders of the two legislative bodies: Speaker of the House Kurt Daudt and Majority Leader Tom Bakk. These provisions were put, at the last minute, in a major bill required to avert a government shut down.

It was a bit of gubernatorial blackmail; the governor said he felt he had to sign the bill, and he has urged the legislature to reverse it ever since.

Under our constitution, bills are supposed to be addressed to a single subject, and Professor Schultz discusses that requirement in the linked story, too, and why the privatization provisions are probably unconstitutional on these grounds, apart from the separation of powers.

But why would the legislature do this, anyway? Well, in the case of the House Republicans, we can just charge it off to partisan mischief.

In the case of Senator Bakk, however, there is something more at work. From a 2013 op-ed by Auditor Otto:

Thirty-one nonferrous mineral leases were recently approved by the Minnesota Executive Council ­— that is, by the governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state and attorney general. I voted against them.

For this act, Rebecca Otto earned the undying enmity of Rangers like Tom Bakk. Enough enmity that he was willing to blow up a constitutional office that has existed since the state was founded.

I don’t know about you, my friends, but this stuns me. It doesn’t especially surprise me, but it stuns me.

And it is all politically very convenient for Lori Swanson. Her fingerprints are on the shiv, too.

What we have here a charming marriage between legislative thuggery and naked ambition.

Update (2/7): As part of the relief requested, Auditor Otto has requested reimbursement of her attorneys’ fees. If she wins, which is at least a fifty-fifty proposition, maybe better, she’ll undoubtedly get them. And that will be a politically inconvenient fact for both Bakk and Swanson.

 

*This sentence is especially for my grammar teacher readers, who are always looking for challenging real world sentences for their students to diagram.

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