Scott, Dakota differ in use of lobbyists

  • Article by: DAVID PETERSON AND , KATIE HUMPHREY
  • Updated: May 12, 2012 - 9:53 PM

Dakota spends more both in state and at the federal level.

It's common but sometimes controversial: Governments hiring lobbyists to lobby other governments.

South of the river, Scott and Dakota counties are taking different approaches to getting their opinions heard in St. Paul and Washington, D.C.

While Scott County leaders are split on spending public money on lobbying, and opted to ax federal lobbying entirely in 2011, Dakota County officials say the results -- sometimes millions of dollars -- are worth consistent investment.

But it's also clear that lots of those in public office are ill at ease with government-to-government lobbying, if only because of public opinion.

"Lobbying is a hot-button issue," said Scott County's board chairman, Tom Wolf. "People don't like it."

But it's also about who wants what and when.

On the Dakota side, officials say continued lobbying has propelled local projects like Cedar Avenue transit.

"Like a lot of things out here, it's been more of a steady, stable approach to things," said Matt Smith, deputy administrator in Dakota County. "We wouldn't go from 120 miles per hour to a dead stop."

The Freedom Foundation of Minnesota, a conservative watchdog group that keeps an eye on all manner of public spending that it finds questionable, such as subsidies for golf courses and city-owned bars, also gathers data on federal lobbying.

The group notes that a state law requiring local governments to report in-state lobbying costs to the State Auditor doesn't apply to federal lobbying, meaning "Minnesota's local governments are able to spend a great deal of taxpayer money on Washington lobbyists, largely out of public view."

Lobbying has been a point of contention between the warring factions on the Scott County board.

Jon Ulrich, the board's point person on transportation, heatedly defends the practice as one that has brought the county tens of millions of dollars in benefits in recent years, a gigantic return on investment compared to the cost.

Others are more skeptical.

"Commissioner Ulrich, I have heard this speech from you over and over on the lobbyists," exclaimed fellow board member Joe Wagner during a meeting last winter. Added commissioner Dave Menden of Shakopee:

"We hire a lobbyist for SCALE [a joint group of county civic leaders], for metro and statewide associations of counties -- how many more of these people do we need?"

Ulrich noted that Scott's in-state lobbying costs have been cut in half, to $25,000 a year, and now are as low as any metro-area county. And the county has zeroed out federal lobbying altogether, he added, mainly because it has produced the desired results.

"In the past the three big projects that Scott County has sought local, state, and federal support for were the interchange projects at 494 and 169, Hwy. 13 and County Road 5, and the County Road 21 project," he said. "These projects are either in progress, completed or funded."

The project that the county now wants funded is a four-lane Hwy. 101 bridge over the Minnesota River, and the lobbying is aimed primarily at state officials with the help of local elected leaders. "So, with the success that we have had, we determined that we could eliminate the expense of federal lobbying."

Dakota County, meanwhile, continues to push for infrastructure projects with federal connections, including transit projects on Cedar Avenue and Robert Street and federally required upgrades to the Byllesby Dam on the southern end of the county.

The Cedar Avenue busway alone has drawn millions in federal funding in its first phase.

"The federal support for Cedar has really made the difference in that project being able to happen or not," Smith said.

The county has had a contract with law firm Lockridge Grindal Nauen for lobbying and other assistance at the federal level for about $60,000 annually since the mid-1990s.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the source of the data for the Freedom Foundation's annual report, about $20,000 of that went toward lobbying in 2011, down from $40,000 the year before.

At the state level, Dakota County spent about $107,000 for lobbying during 2010, the most recent data available. Most of it went toward an outside contract, with the rest paying for a county staff position that has since been cut.

But spending to get influence at the state and national capitols hasn't become the flashpoint that lobbying has been in Scott County.

"I think, over the years, the county has felt like it's an important element in representing Dakota County taxpayers who are also federal and state taxpayers," Smith said.

dapeterson@startribune.com 952-746-3285 katie.humphrey@startribune.com 952-746-3286

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