To look at the list of companies and trade associations that lobbied the Legislature last year is to witness the vast and diverse Minnesota economy: hospitals and hotels, restaurants and retail, payday lenders and Polaris, hogs and high tech.
When it comes to spending money to lobby the Legislature, business groups are dominant: Eight of the top 10 spenders in 2014 were corporations or business groups, while the other two were the League of Minnesota Cities and the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, according to a report released last week by the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board.
All told, businesses, trade associations, labor unions and other groups spent $61 million lobbying the Legislature, a number that’s been relatively flat since the recession began in 2008.
The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce led the way with $2.28 million, a figure that includes salaries and all other costs, such as research, that go into lobbying the Legislature. Others in the top 10 included the Norm Coleman-backed Minnesota Action Network; the Minnesota Business Partnership, which comprises the state’s largest businesses; Realtors; tobacco giant Altria; refiner and chemical company Flint Hills Resources; energy utility Xcel; and, a hedge fund, Fortress Investment Group.
Each invested at least $472,500 trying to influence policy at the Legislature, which last year rescinded big tax breaks it raised on business in 2013, but also raised the minimum wage against the wishes of many business groups.
The expensive effort by business isn’t to say labor unions didn’t also spend heavily on lobbying. Education Minnesota, AFSCME Council 5 and the AFL-CIO spent a combined $1.14 million.
The report also shows Minnesota’s complex web of interest groups advancing their favored policies: Conservation Minnesota and Catholic Charities each spent $100,000. The Marijuana Policy Project doled out $140,000, and it got results: The Legislature approved medical marijuana, albeit in a limited, tightly regulated regimen.
Is our Legislature lobbied more than others? That’s hard to know. Iowa and South Dakota don’t tally up lobbying totals, and there’s no national state-by-state guide. Minnesota spending on lobbying vastly outpaced Wisconsin, where lobbyists spent just $26 million last year.
But there’s more to lobbying than money. Labor unions, but also the Chamber of Commerce and other civic and religious groups benefit from a policy designed to stir citizen involvement in the process: Volunteers don’t have to register as lobbyists, which means Education Minnesota can turn its 70,000 members into a marching army of citizen lobbyists on controversial bills like this year’s effort to require school districts to consider performance when they weigh teacher layoffs.
And, in the end, legislators often care much less about what a high-powered lobbyist whispers in their ear than what constituents are saying in e-mails, phone calls and at town hall meetings.