A conservative group is objecting to the spending of millions of tax dollars on lobbying the federal government -- often to lure millions more in spending.
But local officials say they are being forced to play a nasty game.
"Washington is a sharp-elbowed place," said Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin. "There's all sorts of information and messages being circulated down there. You have to fight hard to get your message in the right places."
A new report from the Freedom Foundation of Minnesota highlights the 26 local government entities that collectively spent $5.2 million since 2006 lobbying federal officials. Scott County topped the list at $815,000, spending more than twice as much as nine-times-bigger Hennepin County.
Spending tax dollars to ask for more tax dollars at a time when all levels of government are tightening budgets doesn't smell right, said Jonathan Blake, the foundation's vice president.
Scott County's response: Don't hate the player, hate the game. County Administrator Gary Shelton said it would be "nonsensical to not express" Scott's views through lobbying.
Lobbying has helped bring $62 million in critical transportation projects to Scott County in the past five years, county Commissioner Jon Ulrich said. Lobbying also saved the state $40 million when it helped gain agreement that the Hwy. 169/I-494 interchange reconstruction project didn't have to follow conventional guidelines but could be downsized, omitting elements that are normally required, Shelton added.
Scott County's total is inflated by the fact that its since-resolved battle with the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community took place before the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, Ulrich said, meaning "our attorney fees in this dispute have been categorized as lobbying dollars." The dispute was over the tribe's desire to put a big hunk of land into trust, taking it off the tax rolls.
Scott County also has turned increasingly toward lobbying because its congressman, Second District Republican John Kline, has sworn off seeking earmarks for his district, Shelton said.
Kline stands behind his decision as a way to cut pork-barrel spending, despite the vast majority of members' determination to keep using earmarks to fund local projects. "County commissioners could save their constituents tens of thousands of dollars by meeting with members of the Minnesota delegation in their Minnesota offices," Kline said in a statement.
The second leading spender was the city of Moorhead, which agrees completely with Scott County. Even with help from its congressman in Washington, city officials say, the city needed to spend money to get money.
In the past five years, Minnesota's 24th-largest city spent $620,000 petitioning for underpass improvements, which Moorhead Mayor Mark Voxland said wouldn't have come in the next decade without the city's lobbying.
"Being that we're 250 miles from the state capital, we found that a lot of the needs we have in our community for traffic safety were just not being met," he said. The city secured funding for a $30 million underpass project, which broke ground in 2009.
For the Minnesota Department of Transportation, all this federal lobbying can be a headache. The state must divert resources from its highest priority projects to those that receive one-time federal funding, said department spokeswoman Donna Lindberg.
For instance, the Moorhead underpass project received 80 percent federal funding but relied on other sources to fill the gap. That process can stop the state from funding its highest priority projects.
Still, local governments, including Hennepin County, believe lobbying is needed for local government to be a competitive voice for Minnesota's constituents.
Coming in third with $405,000 in lobbying expenses since 2006, Hennepin County has brought in more than $1 billion in a "fierce competition" nationally for money for state projects, Commissioner McLaughlin said.