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Local view: Minnesota’s auditor is needed to ensure accountability

I'm a lifelong Democrat, and I love Minnesota; so when some pretty undemocratic things started happening during the closing hours of this year's legislative session, I looked into it.

Kristin Larsen

I’m a lifelong Democrat, and I love Minnesota; so when some pretty undemocratic things started happening during the closing hours of this year’s legislative session, I looked into it.
I’m grateful our governor had the wisdom to veto several bills that were passed by the Republican House and, surprisingly, by the Democratic Senate under the leadership of Tom Bakk. These were bills that could have rolled back decades of environmental protections, harmed wild rice, exempted sulfide mining from solid-waste rules and neutered the buffer-zone plan championed by Gov. Mark Dayton.
Sens. Bakk, Tom Saxhaug, Dave Tomassoni and others stuck the weakening, roll-back provisions into “conference committee” reports, some that weren’t considered until the dark of night and some with provisions that hadn’t been seen or debated by the House or Senate.
One of the most egregious examples was in a bill the governor did not veto, but which must be removed. It’s a poison-pill provision that Saxhaug, under Bakk’s leadership, slipped into the State Government Finance Bill. It privatizes many of the duties of the Minnesota State Auditor’s Office. The bill allows county boards to hire private-auditor buddies who will work to please the boards, not voters. This bill strips taxpayers of the accountability and transparency provided by duly elected state Auditor Rebecca Otto, who works only for them.
Remember the financial collapse? Enron? Deregulation deals made in back rooms brought about those messes.
And if that weren’t enough, Saxhaug’s bill abolishes any authority the state auditor has to audit any Minnesota county as of July 1 while not allowing private auditors to audit counties until Aug. 1 of 2016. You read that right: No audits of Minnesota counties by anyone for a year. That means no oversight of how your tax dollars are spent by St. Louis County or other counties for more than a year. This puts millions of dollars in federal funds and county bond ratings in jeopardy because both depend upon audits.  
Why would Bakk and Saxhaug fumble this so badly, giving Republicans something they wanted for years and reducing oversight for taxpayers? Could it be because the state auditor had the audacity to suggest copper mining corporations setting their sights on the sulfide-laden Duluth Complex put up adequate financial assurances to protect taxpayers from financial exposure? Could it be because, in a nutshell, she was doing her job?
What goes into the water on and near the Iron Range doesn’t stay there. It arrives in Duluth, flowing down the St. Louis River into Lake Superior. Or it flows to the Mississippi River or Rainy River and to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Mine waste in sulfide-bearing regions like the Duluth Complex can combine with mercury from the air, and the resulting methylmercury can get into the food chain. This can render locally available, sustainable protein in the form of fish inedible; or, if eaten, that methylmercury can harm babies’ nervous systems. Lifelong damage is costly and grievous.
Despite half a billion spent cleaning up the St. Louis River, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency still lacks a plan to solve the existing complicated, expensive, dangerous mercury problem in the very river we want to promote.
Please, call your legislator. Ask for an end to attempts to intimidate elected officials, scientists and citizens. Tell them you want our counties to qualify for federal funds and to be able to issue bonds at competitive rates. Tell them allowing corporations to foul our waters and then making taxpayers pay for the difficult cleanup doesn’t make sense. Ask them to build a truly diversified northern economy. Ask for the transparency and accountability of an auditor elected by the citizens of Minnesota.
 
Kristin Larsen is an occupational therapist, an ardent observer of politics and an advocate of environmental initiatives to protect water, air and the future. She splits her time between the Cloquet Valley State Forest and Duluth.

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