After an inquiry prompted by complaints from Republican lawmakers, Legislative Auditor Jim Nobles has concluded that Minnesota does not have a clear standard to assess the actions of two state officials accused of using public funds to oppose constitutional amendments on the ballot last November.
Nobles released a letter today that he sent to Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, last month detailing the findings of a preliminary assessment. Newman, who was a chief sponsor of the voter ID constitutional amendment, accused DFL Secretary of State Mark Ritchie of wrongly using his official capacity and public funds to oppose that ballot question. Similar accusations were later leveled against Human Rights Commissioner Kevin Lindsey, who publicly opposed voter ID and the constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage.
In the letter, Nobles noted that state law only goes so far on prohibiting certain political activity by public officials and employees.
“It does not establish a clear standard for determining whether it would be legal (or illegal) for a state official or employee to use public money or other public resources to support or oppose a proposed amendment to the constitution,” Nobles wrote. “”However, there is legal precedence in Minnesota and other states to support the view that public money and other public resources should not be used to support or oppose a proposed amendment to the constitution once it is approved by the Legislature and becomes a ballot question.”
Nobles said the Legislature could clarify the issue by establishing a specific prohibition in state law.
Nobles also quoted from the responses he received from both officials. Ritchie denied that he or his office worked against the voter ID amendment.
“When providing educational information in response to citizens inquiries about the proposed changes to Minnesota’s election system, staff and I refrained from taking a position urging voters to support or defeat the amendment,” Ritchie wrote.
Ritchie’s office provided Nobles with an estimate of $28,492 spent on preparing materials related to the amendment and responding to citizen inquiries.
Lindsey, on the other hand, acknowledged working against both amendments with public money and resources, and declared that it was his job to do so. The commissioner said he was authorized under the Minnesota Human Rights Act to fight amendments that are “discriminatory” and “threaten to undermine our democracy.” Lindsey submitted documents to Nobles showing the department spent at least $6,000 to oppose the amendments.