Shhh! Mediation over state budget is hush-hush affair

Mediation sessions between Gov. Mark Dayton and leaders of the Legislature are costing taxpayers hundreds of dollars per hour, but the public has little chance of learning what is happening.

The political leaders began closed-door meetings with a mediator Thursday in hopes of ending a budget dispute that has held up funding for House and Senate operations. The mediation was ordered by the Minnesota Supreme Court, which wants at least a status report by the end of the month.

Dayton and the Republicans who are in charge of both chambers are part of the mediation being held at a Minneapolis law firm and overseen by retired Judge Rick Solum. Dayton told reporters Wednesday that what goes on in the room will stay in the room.

“At the mediator’s request the parties will not be communicating further prior to mediation being concluded,” Dayton said. “So I have nothing more to say about the mediation process. If it’s not successful, I’ll have a lot to say.”

Solum has said that any exception to a confidentiality arrangement would be up to the parties, but he said giving details during a mediation can be counterproductive to the sides working toward a middle ground.

Mark Anfinson, a Minneapolis attorney who often represents media clients, said even if the sides kept notes or made other records of the discussions they could be shielded. The Legislature isn’t subject to open records requirements and both sides could invoke attorney-client privilege to try to contain details.

Anfinson said the fact the talks involve taxpayer dollars and are occurring at steep public expense add a different dimension to the secrecy.

“Given the gravity of what they’re discussing, I would certainly hope that some public servant participating would have the commitment to the public interest to tell us what happens,” Anfinson said. “Just because they aren’t required to doesn’t mean they can’t or shouldn’t.”

The mediator is being paid $257 per hour and the private attorneys for both sides are also earning legal fees ranging from $300 an hour to $500 an hour.

If the mediation is fruitful and produces a deal, an agreement would be subject to ratification by the Legislature during a probable special session. If the sides fail to work things out, the case will be squarely back in the hands of Supreme Court justices.