Millions in MN taxpayer funding goes for local government lobbying
By Tom Steward | Watchdog Minnesota Bureau
DOWN TO THE TOWNSHIP: All but 2 of MN’s 1,783 townships pay dues to support a lobbyist in St. Paul, including $84 from Sunrise Township residents who still vote in the oldest building still holding government meetings in the state.
ST. PAUL, Minn. — Local governments in Minnesota burned through more than $8 million in taxpayer-funded lobbying last year, up more than 3 percent over 2012, according to a new state report.
A Watchdog Minnesota Bureau analysis indicates the practice has become so ingrained that every Minnesota taxpayer likely funds at least one local government entity to lobby another level of government.
“It goes both ways. If they get what they want that’s a reason to do more of it. If they don’t get what they want, that’s just a reason to spend even more money on lobbying,” said Jonathan Blake, who analyzes lobbying activity for the Freedom Foundation of Minnesota.
“So there’s never really a scenario in which you can see cities, counties, townships or others walking away from this because they all want something.”
Every edition contains a disclaimer: “The operation and funding of local governments can be greatly affected by decisions made by the state Legislature. Therefore, it is understandable that those affected by these decisions would want to have representation during the legislative process.”
The 394-page report breaks down taxpayer-funded lobbying into two categories: Staff and outside contract lobbyists — $3.9 million— and dues and other funds spent by local government associations — $4.2 million.
As usual, the state’s biggest cities, counties and local government entities threw around the most taxpayer money for staff and Capitol lobbyists. Minneapolis ($307,000) tops the list, followed by Hennepin County ($245,000), Western Minnesota Municipal Power Agency ($158,000), St. Paul ($158,000) and Ramsey County ($151,000).
“I think the reason the Legislature wants this transparency is so that residents of the community can say, ‘OK, why did you spend, whether it’s $100,000 or $22 or whatever it might be, on lobbying?’” said Rebecca Otto, Minnesota state auditor. “That’s something they can answer to their citizens for. So I’m hoping that people use this report for being informed and asking questions.”
Yet even the smallest Minnesota local governments play a sizable role in the lobbying lottery through membership in 26 township, city, county or school associations, which designate from 8 percent to 89 percent of their taxpayer-funded dues for lobbying.
For example, taxpayers in the central Minnesota city of Evansville, population 605, funded at least three layers of lobbying: $296 to the Minnesota Association of Small Cities, $612 to the Minnesota School Board Association from Independent School District 208 and a portion of the $2,939 spent by Douglas County through the Association of Minnesota Counties and Minnesota Rural Counties Caucus.
Association lobbying disclosures by Minnesota cities chew up a quarter of the report — 100 pages. All but 41 of Minnesota’s 853 cities belong to an association that lobbies, according to the Office of the State Auditor. The associations that spend the most taxpayer money on lobbying starts with the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities ($836,000), League of Minnesota Cities ($629,000), Minnesota School Boards Association ($511,000), Association of Metropolitan School Districts ($300,000) and Schools for Equity in Education ($229,000).
All 87 Minnesota counties also pay for lobbyists as members of one or more county associations. On the low end, rural Big Stone County spent $765 on lobbying; suburban Dakota County put up $54,387 —in addition to $107,000 on staff and contract lobbyists.
EVERYONE DOES IT: Every MN taxpayer likely funds government lobbying at some level, including Dakota County residents who forked out $170,000 for lobbying at the county level alone in 2013.
Some 334 independent school districts report using taxpayer dollars to lobby through educational associations, with Anoka-Hennepin schools topping out at $30,239 — plus $36,000 on staff and contract lobbyists.
Townships — the leanest and most prolific level of government — take up more space in the annual lobbying report than any governmental entity — about 200 pages. Only two of the state’s 1,783 townships failed to file a lobbying report — Battle Township in Beltrami County and Selma Township in Cottonwood County. The other 1,781 townships belong to the Minnesota Association of Townships, which designates 8 percent — lowest among associations — of annual dues for lobbying.
“MAT (Minnesota Association of Townships) believes that representing local governments at the Capitol is a little different than other types of lobbying because we are partners with the state and not a ‘special interest’ as that term is generally viewed in the legislative arena,” said Kent Sulem, general counsel and lobbyist for MAT. “Yes, we do have a legislative agenda, but the goals of the legislative changes center around providing effective and efficient government services while keeping local property taxes as low as possible.”
“Generally speaking, most of our interests have to do with roads and bridges and some government mandates that we don’t like,” said Jill Hall, a resident of New Solum Township in northwestern Minnesota and MAT board member. “It depends on the population and the size of the township. It varies a little bit what they pay.”
New Solum , Marshall County’s biggest township with 325 residents, pays $444 in annual association dues, $36 of it for lobbying. Nearly two dozen townships pay the bare minimum of $22 a year, with Liberty Township in Itasca County listed in the annual report as paying $1 in association dues and nothing for lobbying.
Altogether, MAT spent $69,000 on lobbying, placing 16 among 26 local government association lobbying in 2013. Most dues go to providing other services such as insurance coverage, education, training and more.
“The financial impact of a proposed statute or regulation can be much harsher on small rural communities,” said Sulem. “With the population growth in the metropolitan area outpacing that of rural Minnesota, the rural areas have fewer legislative seats, which means it is even more important for the smallest communities to have representation at the Capitol.”
In the end, the 2013 report still understates taxpayer-funded local government lobbying. A loophole in the law does not require local governments to report taxpayer funding for lobbying federal officials. A Watchdog Minnesota Bureau analysis found Minnesota local governments spent about $1.1 million on lobbying Washington in 2012.