Local governments in Minnesota spent less money on lobbying in 2017 compared to the previous year, but still used $8.77 million trying to influence decisions at other levels of government, according to a new report from State Auditor Rebecca Otto.
Cities, counties and other local government entities continued to pay dues to associations that lobbied on their behalf, but they cut back sharply on hiring their own lobbyists in 2017, according to the report.
That reversed a trend, when local governments increased such spending nearly 25 percent over a few recent years — staffing lobbyists to help keep track of issues as the state House shifted from Republican to DFL control in the 2012 election, then back to the Republicans in 2014. Total spending in 2016 was $9.11 million.
"It's pretty difficult to follow what's going on day-to-day up here," said Gary Carlson, director of intergovernmental relations for the League of Minnesota Cities and a longtime State Capitol lobbyist. "And one of the things our association does is watch very closely legislation and amendments that might affect our cities' government financial operations or otherwise."
The Legislature weighs in on everything from annexation rules to zoning, with a plethora of issues in between — any of which could create new rules for water districts or bust a hole in a city budget.
In recent years, a new area of contention has joined the usual statehouse fights over funding formulas and infrastructure spending — so-called pre-emption, as the Legislature has tried to override city government decisions about issues like minimum wage, sick pay and whether grocers can use plastic bags.
State lawmakers, mostly Republican, have proposed more than 50 bills over the past two years that would limit the ability of cities to regulate what happens in their boundaries.
The state's largest cities were the biggest spenders on lobbying in 2017, with Minneapolis and St. Paul shelling out a combined $690,000. Both have millions at stake in decisions at the Capitol, like how local government aid is apportioned.
Hennepin and Ramsey counties, the city of Bloomington and the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board round out the top six spenders.
While some of the state's largest local entities retain their own lobbyists, most cities rely on associations like the League of Minnesota Cities and Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities, which together spent $1.6 million lobbying in 2017.