The lobbyist of the public imagination is decked out in Gucci shoes and a bespoke suit, arguing on behalf of a corporate behemoth or powerful labor union.
But plenty of lobbyists work for slightly less glamorous clients: the cities, counties, school boards, watershed districts and other government entities that spend millions every year lobbying the Legislature.
In other words: Government lobbying government.
As the Legislature gears up to consider a long-term transportation plan and a bonding package that will comprise hundreds of millions of dollars for local projects, every city has a need — and many pay top dollar to argue their case.
Of the five organizations that spent the most trying to influence the Legislature last year, two are groups of cities that send lobbyists to St. Paul to urge the Legislature to give them more money, delay water quality standards for their sewer plants and toughen penalties for crimes bedeviling their communities, among a hundred other issues that can affect a metropolis like Minneapolis or a hamlet like Hackensack.
The League of Cities and the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities together spent $1.3 million to lobby in 2015, according to a report released earlier in March by the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board.
All told, local governments spent more than $8.2 million on lobbying activities in 2014, according to the most recent local lobbying report of the state auditor.
“Lobby for local government aid so they can pay for a lobbyist for more local government aid,” said Rep. Greg Davids, R-Preston. “It’s insulting that we need to hire a lobbyist when we’re elected to make sure our cities are in great shape,” he said.
“Sometimes I wish we could outlaw them,” said Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa.
But local government lobbyists who roam the Capitol and some legislators say the range of issues is so vast and complex that cities, counties and other government entities need a full-time presence to watch what’s happening, or they could wind up hit with an unfunded mandate or a badly needed road project zeroed out.
Minnesota is what’s known as a “Dillon’s Rule” state, which means for the most part local governments have only the authority the Legislature grants them, often putting cities at the mercy of their legislative betters.
Last week, for instance, the League of Minnesota Cities had to help big cities get an exemption from a 1904 law that had to do with neighbor disputes over fences, while also trying to repeal a law that restricts what cities are allowed to spend on sports trophies.
Gary Carlson, chief lobbyist for the League of Minnesota Cities, gave an account of a harried recent day at the Legislature that was like most days — meeting with legislators, testifying at hearings, swapping gossip with other lobbyists.
Carlson, who has four lobbyists and two part-time lobbyists on his staff, met with legislators on a sales tax exemption for local government purchases; tried to persuade a lawmaker that a bill that would require local government to disclose franchise fees to constituents would cost a small fortune in postage; and pushed measures to make local-government aid payments more frequent to help with cash flow.
Because legislators must be generalists, local government lobbyists can provide specialized expertise on complex topics like water quality standards for wastewater treatment plants or the formula for local government aid, said Bradley Peterson, a lobbyist for Flaherty & Hood.
It costs money. The Association of Minnesota School Boards spent $391,000 last year; the Association of Metro School Districts spent $320,000. Associations of counties, townships, small cities, north metro mayors, suburban transit, district judges, libraries and municipal liquor stores all spent $60,000 or more. The Metro Mosquito Control District spent $20,000, as did the Duluth Port Authority.
Davids, the powerful chairman of the House Taxes Committee, praised the work of the League of Minnesota Cities and said he sees its value, but Davids turned his fire on the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities (CGMC), which advocates on behalf of 88 cities in rural Minnesota with combined populations of about 800,000.
“I don’t know how the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities justifies its existence,” he said. The group has lobbied hard against a measure in a Davids tax bill that would have cut local government aid for the state’s largest cities. Davids alleged the CGMC is highly partisan against Republicans.
Call the phone number on the CGMC website, and you reach Flaherty & Hood, a law and lobbying firm whose billings are almost entirely taxpayer-supported entities or quasi-government entities like port authorities.
Peterson, the Flaherty & Hood lobbyist, rejected Davids’ charge of partisanship, pointing to Dan Dorman and Marty Seifert, two former Republican House members who work for the firm. “We will be critical of the DFL or Republicans depending on their position and whether we think it will help our clients,” he said.
Indeed, some DFLers were livid last year when Flaherty & Hood helped craft and advocate for legislation that would stall water quality standards intended to clean up farm pollution like phosphorus, which small cities said would cripple their taxpayers without any certainty of improvement of water quality.
Rep. Dan Fabian, R-Roseau, said CGMC — meaning Flaherty & Hood — helped arrange for city officials to testify about how much it would cost to meet the new phosphate standards. Flaherty & Hood also provided technical assistance, with a lobbyist going so far as to acknowledge in a hearing that they helped draft it, though lobbyist-written bills are not unusual at the Legislature. The legislation eventually stalled, but Fabian said he is coming back again.
Despite the assist from the CGMC, Fabian said there’s no question who the most effective lobbyists are: constituents.
“The best money a mayor can spend on lobbying is to pick up the phone and call Dan Fabian,” he said. “And they do.”