The weekday lunch and dinner crowds at Manny’s Steakhouse and Oceanaire Seafood Room were more than twice as big as normal last week compared to a typical late August day, and John Doran, a waiter at both restaurants, said that was thanks to several thousand state legislators and their staffs from around the country.
“They’re the best, exactly the clientele we’re looking for,” Doran said. “They come in, eat, drink and spend money. It’s awesome.”
In all, about 5,100 state lawmakers and their policy aides and assistants assembled in downtown Minneapolis for the 40th annual gathering of the National Conference of State Legislatures. Known to statehouse types by its acronym NCSL, it’s a member organization that tracks trends in state governance and provides original research that aims to be a nonpartisan source of information for both political parties.
For four days, the Minneapolis Convention Center teemed with legislators and their staffs. The foremost purpose of the NCSL Legislative Summit was a lengthy agenda of policy forums and panel discussions, on dozens of issues facing Republicans, Democrats and their aides from coast to coast: from “All Bets Are Off: The Battle Over Online Gambling” to “Building a Brand for Legislative Staff.”
In 2006, former state legislative leaders Larry Pogemiller and Margaret Anderson Kelliher launched the initial bid for Minneapolis to host the NCSL. By that time, Minnesota lawmakers were still in the midst of a nearly decadelong, self-imposed travel ban.
“We were running budget deficits, and we didn’t feel it was appropriate to spend money on out-of-state conferences. It didn’t seem like a good idea,” said state Senate President Sandy Pappas of St. Paul, who led the local organizing effort.
Once Minnesota landed the convention, and the state general fund started to perk up, that ban started to thaw. Small groups of Minnesota lawmakers traveled to NCSL’s 2012 convention in Chicago and the 2013 convention in Atlanta.
“Most of us had never been to one, so when it became apparent we were putting one of these on we decided we better go,” said Sen. Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, who went on the Chicago trip. On Wednesday, Senjem was wandering the Exhibit Hall, where representatives of a wide range of businesses, advocacy groups, nonprofits organizations and lobbying interests schmoozed with lawmakers while passing out pens and pamphlets, drink coasters and beer cozies, candy and other free booty.
At times the juxtapositions were jarring: the National Rifle Association booth sat about 20 feet from the booth for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. Lawmakers could get their blood pressure checked, try out a “Magic Massage Ultra Massage Belt,” pick up free boxes of cereal at the General Mills booth or climb into a real stagecoach at the Wells Fargo booth.
In most cases, legislative budgets cover travel and lodging for lawmakers and staff to attend, but they pay for their own meals and entertainment. Corporate sponsors helped pay for the convention; Pappas said her host committee raised about $1.5 million from “a lot of major Minnesota corporations who see this as a good way to show themselves off as state boosters.” Organizers estimated an $8 million benefit to the local economy.
Target and Xcel Energy were platinum sponsors, and a long list of companies, prominent law and public affairs firms, and business associations all kicked in too.
At a general assembly Wednesday morning that featured Gov. Mark Dayton and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Target executive vice president Tim Baer gave brief remarks that included praise for state lawmakers who championed a priority issue for the retailer: equity in sales tax collections between brick-and-mortar and online retailers.
State Sen. Patricia Torres Ray, DFL-Minneapolis, said she thought the convention was well-planned and beneficial for participants. But she admitted to being turned off by the corporate involvement.
“Their view was very well-represented,” Torres Ray said of the sponsoring groups. “They work to promote themselves and to make profits — and that’s different from the larger public good.”