Minnesota taxpayer funds may be going towards phones and mobile devices being used in political campaigns due to how the Legislature reimburses its communication expenses.
The House of Representatives and the Senate provide a monthly Communication Reimbursement for active legislators. The reimbursement covers legislators for personally owned communication services, such as cell phones and Internet subscriptions. The House provides up to $75 monthly, and the Senate provides up to $125 monthly.
The reimbursement is a standard benefit for legislators, but limited oversight may be moving it towards financing questionable activities.
When legislators submit for the reimbursement, they have two options: they can submit copies of their communication receipts or they can simply submit a basic form with the amount they claim for the designated month. If receipts are submitted, the reimbursement is counted as a legislative expense. If the form is submitted, the reimbursement is treated as taxable income for the legislator.
Senate and House policies strictly dictate that Senate or House equipment cannot be used in political campaigns, including landline phones. A good deal of the tighter regulations on how communication equipment is used in the Legislature was put into place following the Phonegate scandal. That incident involved DFL lawmakers using their state-funded toll-free access codes for personal use. This practice resulted in a large phone bill at the taxpayer's expense.
While regulations tightened following the scandal, the wording was aimed primarily at the more commonly used landline phones of the time. Several regional legislators stated that they had shifted to performing the majority of their legislative work on mobile devices like cell phones, iPads and laptop computers. The Legislature's website even noted the trend on its "What's New " page when it debuted a new mobile device version of the website. The trend means these mobile devices fill the role the old landline phones previously filled for legislators.
However, because the devices are privately owned, the current language for the regulations in the Legislature leaves them with almost no rules. Similarly, there is essentially no information for House and Senate staffers to track. Reimbursements via forms only have the amount a legislator claims. Reimbursement via receipts sometimes come with the page carrying the total. For example, the number of a cell phone being reimbursed may not be on the receipt.
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The best example of the potential problem can be seen in Sen. Mike Parry's (R-Waseca) campaign for Minnesota's 1st Congressional District. Parry has two cell phones that are now being actively used in his campaign. In the past, Parry went to lengths to differentiate his first phone as his legislative work phone and his second phone as his congressional campaign phone. Prior to Monday, Parry had submitted receipts to be reimbursed at least once for each phone. Since Parry's second phone has been consistently used for campaign activity, the reimbursement would have been paying for campaign expenses with taxpayer funds.
When asked Monday about the filing, the Parry campaign sent a press release stating that the incorrect phone number was submitted by mistake.
"Senator Parry made an honest mistake and submitted the incorrect cell phone bill on March 30, 2012. Earlier [Monday], Senator Parry submitted the correct bill so the Fiscal Office can update the information," stated the press release.
The Parry campaign stated that it would not return the reimbursement, citing that a real cost has been incurred on the legislative phone. The campaign claimed that despite filing the wrong phone receipts, the reimbursement had gone toward the correct bill.
No matter the situation with Parry's campaign, the incident underscores the problem with the current system. The Parry incident was only discovered after looking into an individual's records with prior knowledge of the cell phone numbers. The minimal information provided to staffers in the House and the Senate does not lend itself to easy tracking. Also, there is currently neither a system nor a method to determine if a submitted cell phone is being used primarily for campaign activities
In an informal survey of five area lawmakers, every legislator stated they took the Communication Reimbursement and that they would take any kind of call on their cell phone. All the legislators interviewed are also currently running active political campaigns for elected office. The consensus among the legislators interviewed was that they were engaging in very typical or normal activity, particularly since they personally owned the phones. Some of the legislators noted that they performed some actions to avoid conflicts of interest, such as not submitting Internet receipts if they used their computers for campaign work.
If any of the legislators casually take a campaign call on a reimbursed cell phone, which every interviewed legislator indicated has happened, the wording of policies in the House and the Senate does not list the actions as ethical violations. If the same activity is performed on a landline phone at the House or the Senate, the action is clearly defined as a violation.
With the growing trend towards mobile devices, cell phones and similar devices are steadily replacing the landline phones. But, the limited oversight means taxpayers are paying for a portion of the bills for these mobile devices without any regulation of their use. Additionally, the casual way that campaigning legislators use these devices makes it difficult to determine whether taxpayers are footing the bill for their campaigns expenses.
Currently, there is not active campaign to change the Minnesota Legislature's communication policies.
(Josh Moniz can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org)