Most state government work stopped, but partisan tweets in high gearby Tim Pugmire, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — Twenty-two thousand state employees are out of work because of the government shutdown, but communication staffers for Gov. Mark Dayton and legislative leaders from both parties are still on the job.
In recent weeks, those paid spokespeople have used the social networking site Twitter to wage a non-stop partisan debate on the stalled budget negotiations.
There's a law that prohibits some government officials from using state resources during business hours to promote political positions. But others are exempt, and some lawmakers think changes are needed.
When the regular session ended in May without a budget agreement between the governor and legislature, some Dayton administration commissioners sent e-mails to employees explaining the situation.
Republicans complained to Legislative Auditor James Nobles, who concluded the e-mails were "one-sided and could be interpreted as promoting a political position."
"Commissioners can do a lot to voice their support and opinions," Nobles said. "They can go to committee hearings, as they often are expected to do in support of the governor. They can hold press conferences. They can write letters. But the one thing that they have to be careful of is using the state's e-mail system."
But when Nobles received similar complaints about emails Republican legislative leaders sent to state employees about the budget impasse, he said there wasn't a problem.
He said the rules commissioners in the executive branch must follow don't apply to the legislative branch.
"That may be reflective of the fact that the Legislature is inherently a political institution," he said. "Unlike civil servants of the state, legislators are expected, really required to take political positions all the time."
Nobles said the same policy differences apply to other forms of communication, including Twitter.
On any given day at the Capitol, GOP and DFL staffers, as well as legislators, are using their Twitter accounts to share sharply partisan points of view:
Just a reminder: GOP still choosing to protect richest 2% while raising property taxes, taking care from seniors/disabled, gutting higher ed
The state government shutdown has only intensified the messaging, which is all done on the public dime. But while some legislators are enthusiastic Twitter participants, others are concerned critics. DFL Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk said he thinks some Republican staffers are sending inappropriate messages that disrespect the Senate.
"What they want to do as private citizens after working hours, when they're sitting at home in their chair, what they want to say I think is their own business," Bakk said. "I think it's inappropriate for employees to be doing partisan type things while they're on the clock of the state Senate."
Bakk singled out Michael Brodkorb, who works as communications director of the Senate Republican Caucus and is also Deputy Chair of the Republican Party of Minnesota. When it comes to Twitter and partisan messages, Brodkorb is prolific.
He's also unapologetic about using what he describes as tremendous communications tool.
"I have a role as a partisan communications director," he said. "Clearly as the communications director for the Senate majority caucus, I'm going to continue to do. My tweets are reflective of a message that membership wishes to see. My tweets are of my own, but I am incredibly disciplined in what I send out."
Brodkorb said some people might not like his tweets, but he stands by their accuracy. He also stressed that Minnesotans need more information about state government, not less.
- Morning Edition, 07/11/2011, 6:25 a.m.