The upcoming 2015 legislative session, which began on January 6, brings unique challenges and opportunities for the MSBA. The Capitol building is under construction and the Republican takeover in the House means we will have to navigate a closely divided legislature, work with new leadership and committee chairs, and build relationships with 26 new House members. The new political alignment also provides an opportunity for the MSBA to reestablish itself as a smart, resourceful, and focused organization that advances sound policy proposals on behalf of its 16,000 members. We are fortunate to have an experienced legislative team and a strategic agenda that will allow the Bar to capitalize on the profession’s knowledge to benefit the public and advance justice.
Our New Legislative Team
As we prepare for the opening of the legislative session, the Bar welcomes Bryan Lake as the MSBA’s chief lobbyist. Bryan previously worked as the MSBA’s government relations director before joining the Minnesota Business Partnership as its communications director. Bryan is well-known and respected for his strategic leadership on difficult issues at the Capitol. Bryan’s lobbying efforts will be supplemented by Sherri Knuth, who recently joined the MSBA staff from her position as policy and outreach manager at the League of Women Voters. Together Bryan and Sherri, working with our many volunteers with subject matter expertise, position the MSBA for a successful legislative session in 2015.
MSBA Legislative Priorities
It’s a budget year and the MSBA’s top legislative priority will be securing adequate funding for the courts, public defenders, and civil legal services. These three partners make up what past-MSBA President Mike Ford coined our “three legs of the stool.” It is imperative that each receive increased state funding to restore cuts made during the Great Recession that went too deep. In a December 9 editorial the Star Tribune reported that Chief Justice Lorie Skjervan Gildea of the Minnesota Supreme Court made the first call to State Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, to plead on behalf of the courts for a share of the newly forecast $1 billion state budget surplus. Bakk, according to the editorial, shared with reporters the chief justice’s request to make a point:
Those who will seek increased state funding from the 2015 Legislature aren’t all—or even mostly—greedy special interests at the public trough. Basic government operations also need increases in funding to keep pace with inflation and to function appropriately in service of the public interest. And government operations don’t get more basic than the courts.
I would add public defenders and civil legal services to the list of necessary recipients of state funding.
Several bills from MSBA sections will be lobbying priorities, too. Of particular focus this year is child custody legislation proposed by the Family Law and Military & Veterans Affairs sections, including a bill that seeks to prevent deployed military members from being penalized in custody matters as a result of their service overseas. The Tax Law Section has proposed an amendment to current tax law designed to prevent use of the location of a taxpayer’s attorneys, CPAs, or financial advisors as a factor in determining residency. The state does not benefit by discouraging nonresidents from using their trusted Minnesota-based advisors. The Real Property Section is proposing technical amendments to current law designed to make it easier—and cheaper—to get plat approval, and to eliminate a blind spot for attorneys in certain contract-for-deed arrangements. All proposed bills are expected to draw strong bipartisan support and enhance the MSBA’s reputation at the Capitol for technical expertise.
You see, the Bar’s role at the Capitol is much larger than simply supporting the justice system and advocating for attorneys’ interests. We apply the vast knowledge of the profession to improve public policy. A significant amount of work is provided by our members behind the scenes to improve bills and make sure they don’t produce unnecessary headaches in the future. Thank you to the many MSBA members who donate time to ensure that new laws function as intended.
One of the reasons the MSBA’s technical expertise is so valued at the Capitol is that there are so few lawyer-legislators—less than 15 percent of all legislators. That was not always the case. There was a time when the lawyer-legislator was a more common sight at the Capitol. Their assistance in making good laws was and is greatly prized. I offer a special thank you to all attorneys who sacrifice part of their practice to serve the public, including MSBA members Rep. Debra Hilstrom (D-Brooklyn Center); Rep. Melissa Hortman (D-Brooklyn Park); Rep. Joyce Peppin (R-Rogers); Rep. Dave Pinto (D-St. Paul); Rep. Dennis Smith (R-Maple Grove); Rep. Paul Thissen (D-Minneapolis); Sen. Dick Cohen (D-St. Paul); Sen. Ron Latz (D-St. Louis Park); Sen. Julianne Ortman (R-Chanhassen); Sen. Torrey Westrom (R-Elbow Lake).
I look forward to spending time at the Capitol this session with our legislative team advocating for the MSBA’s profession-wide issues and section proposals. Our agenda is well-defined and focused. It’s not headline-grabbing stuff. Rather the kind of good government assistance the public and our members have come to expect from this respected institution.