Unexpected legislation has mysterious origins

by Richard Thomas

Last week a great to-do broke out at the St. Louis County board committee of the whole meeting when commissioners were unpleasantly surprised to find a bill pending in the state Legislature that would override their discretion. (March 8 Reader) At this point the bill is unlikely to go anywhere, but the process raises questions as to how these things happen.

To recap: The bill, SF 1039 in the Senate and HF 2238 in the House, says that of the two appointments by the county board to the Duluth Seaway Port Authority board, at least one must represent “an active or former mining area.” 

Most of the shipping that comes through the port is related to the Iron Range mines and up until two years ago, there was an Iron Range commissioner on the Port Authority board. Then due to the commissioners retiring and being replaced, the two reps there now are from the Duluth region. This has been especially irksome to Commissioner Tom Rukavina of Ely. Commissioner Mike Jugovich of Chisholm has voiced more mild objections, while Board Chair Keith Nelson of Virginia has expressed he doesn’t think it’s much of an issue at all.

Rukavina proposed on Jan. 2 having the Legislature add more county reps to the Port Authority so an Iron Ranger could be included. Nelson was more open to this idea. “Commissioner Rukavina, if you want to bring that, if you want to formalize that with administration and bring it back and make it legislative priority, I’m gonna be supportive of that,” he said. “Because I’ve long felt that given county’s investment in the Port Authority that we are underrepresented at the Port Authority, knowing that we cannot have more than three members.”

Rukavina took that comment as a green light to go to the Legislature right away. “We had this discussion and I believe it was brought up that we were gonna go to the Legislature at that meeting and I heard you say, ‘Fine,’” he said to Nelson on March 6.

But the bill was not one of the county’s official legislative priorities. The other commissioners weren’t even aware of it until legislators asked them about it. Plus, where Nelson was open to the idea of increasing the number of county reps on the port, the bill calls for keeping the same number and replacing one of the current members.

“I think there was misunderstanding and we’re working through it,” said Rep. Jason Metsa, author of the House bill. He said the bill came from John Ongaro, St. Louis County’s director of government relations.

According to Ongaro, “Tommy (Rukavina) told me he went to the Revisor of Statutes office and had the revisor draft something.”

But only legislators and constitutional officers (such as the governor, attorney general or auditor) can have bills drafted. Rukavina was a state legislator for 26 years but he’s a private citizen now. (Rukavina did not return the Reader’s phone call by deadline.)

How the bill came about may never be known because the process is shrouded in secrecy. According to Minnesota Statute 3C.05, revisor’s office staff “may not reveal to any person not employed by the revisor’s office the content or nature of a request for drafting services. The content of the request and documents and communications relating to the drafting service supplied is not public and is not subject to subpoena, search warrant, deposition, writ of mandamus, interrogatory, or other disclosure.”

“The drafting relationship should be confidential so members aren’t sharing what could be confidential information,” Said Revisor Paul Marinac. This statute has been in place since the 1940s, he said, noting that other states either carry similar statutes or attorney-client privilege confidentiality policies.

At the March 6 meeting, Nelson expressed anger that Ongaro didn’t tell him about the bill. “I have a lobbyist down there who works for us. I will tell you that I do not want to hear on the street or from one of my fellow commissioners that they caught it from another legislator. I want that legislative representative to do as he’s been asked to do … and make sure this board as a whole is aware of all legislation affecting St. Louis County.”

“Yeah, I saw it, but it wasn’t on my priority list,” Ongaro told the Reader. “It wasn’t even on my secondary list. Every day there are dozens of bills that impact the counties.”

The bill was read March 8 and now wallows in the Committee on Government Operations and Elections Policy. “Metsa laid the bill over in committee,” Ongaro said. “He said he wants to fix it. He’s busy and I don’t know if he can accomplish it in a short window.”

He said, “It has to be a fix both the county and the Port Authority agree with.” Committees must act on bills in their house of origin by March 22.