Just as the Minnesota Capitol was filling with the sounds of a new legislative session, the state campaign finance board was moving to ask legislators to disclose more about their economic interests.
For years, Minnesota has required lawmakers and other public officials to disclose only a bare minimum about their income sources. On Tuesday, the board decided it is time for that to change.
"We are, in fact, weaker than many other states," said Gary Goldsmith, executive director of the Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board.
The board decided Tuesday it will propose an overhaul of the economic disclosure laws. The changes, which backers say are long overdue, could require legislators and others to publicly declare information about their contracting clients, update the public information they share if they get a new job and disclose some details of their spouses' work.
Now, a legislator could have a contract with a company that lobbies the Legislature and the public could be kept in the dark. Public officials also could get a new job and wait months before revealing that in any public form.
A recent study of economic disclosure laws from the Center for Public Integrity (CPI) gave Minnesota a D+ for the quality of its disclosure.
"It really doesn't say anything," said campaign finance board member Neil Peterson, a former Republican state House member, referring to the forms public officials now fill out.
The CPI study was particularly sharp in its criticism of Minnesota's failure to audit the information public officials do disclose. Campaign finance officials hope an increase in their budget from legislators will allow them to monitor the information more closely.
Details of the coming agency proposal to strengthen the economic disclosure laws will be revealed next month. The board proposal would need legislative approval.
Legislators urge change
Key lawmakers say changes are due.
Already DFL Rep. Ryan Winker, of Golden Valley, and DFL Sen. John Marty, of Roseville, have said they are working on their own measures to up the level of information required from legislators. Both have proposed changes before that went nowhere.
This year, Rep. Steve Simon, chairman of the House elections committee, says he would welcome the proposals.
"I think we should do something in the area of disclosure, absolutely," said Simon, a St. Louis Park DFLer. "We can do better, absolutely."
Gov. Mark Dayton, who has voluntarily released his income tax filings since 2010, may be a fan as well.
"The governor strongly supports full financial disclosure for public officials and we look forward to seeing the recommendations from the campaign finance board," said spokeswoman Katharine Tinucci.
The lack of information has received new scrutiny recently as legislators, who are part time, have taken on outside jobs that raised eyebrows. Just last week, Rep. Steve Gottwalt decided to resign his seat after he began a job as a director of state legislative policy for the Center for Diagnostic Imaging, which lobbies the Legislature. He disclosed the job, as required, with the campaign finance board.
But legislators also are sounding some cautions about any overhaul.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said he would like to see tighter laws but "it is probably not as easy as it sounds." Some levels of disclosure could become onerous or put attorneys or consultants in a difficult spot if they have to reveal all their clients, he and others said.
Sen. Dave Thompson, R-Lakeville, agrees. A lawyer, he was investigated last year when questions arose about the consulting work he did for the state Republican Party. As a consultant, he was not required to disclose anything about the job, and the campaign finance board decided he was within the law.
"While certainly I understand the objective of disclosure, I think we are going to go down the wrong road if it prevents people from making a living outside the Legislature," said Thompson, who recently became a staff attorney for Twin Cities Power. "At some point I have to trust that my colleagues here are going to be honest, if they have a real or perceived conflict of interest."
Rachel E. Stassen-Berger Twitter: @rachelsb