The executive director of the state’s political watchdog agency is raising concerns about the “growing use” of former legislators who are paid to win access to contacts at the Capitol without registering as lobbyists.
Under existing state law, lobbyists who are paid at least $3,000 to influence the outcome of policy at the state or local level must file periodic reports detailing who hired them and how much they spent. In 2018, roughly 1,400 registered lobbyists reported a combined $9.5 million in expenditures, not including salaries or fees.
Jeff Sigurdson, executive director of the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board, said some lobbyists have complained that former lawmakers are avoiding triggering those disclosure requirements — as well as other restrictions on gifts and political contributions — by bowing out of the discussions after helping clients gain access to decisionmakers.
“Once the introductions are made, once the doors are open, the former legislator ... is not actually involved in lobbying,” Sigurdson said. “They either don’t attend the meeting, or if they do attend, it’s just to make introductions then presumably sit quiet during the discussion of the issues that the lobbyist is concerned about.”
It isn’t immediately clear who is taking advantage of the loophole or how widespread the practice has become. Sigurdson said he has not been provided with names. Kathryn Hahne, a lobbyist who represents the roughly 500 lobbyists who make up the Minnesota Government Relations Council, said she wasn’t aware of complaints.
But supporters of tougher disclosure laws said the issue stems from Minnesota’s relatively lax lobbying laws. Most states have adopted mandatory “cooling off” periods prohibiting lobbying by former officials for a certain length of time. Minnesota has no such statute, though an internal House rule calls for a one-year moratorium for departing lawmakers.
“We have largely chosen not to regulate this,” said David Schultz, a Hamline University professor who pushed unsuccessfully for tougher laws as a former chairman of Common Cause Minnesota.
The issue re-emerged Friday as members of the state Campaign Finance Board mulled a slate of proposed policy recommendations aimed at updating and improving the state’s campaign and lobbying laws. Sigurdson suggested the board could urge the Legislature to expand the definition of lobbyist to include people who are paid $3,000 or more to facilitate access to decisionmakers.
Any changes would require bipartisan support from legislators and Gov. Tim Walz, a difficult feat in a politically divided State Capitol during an election year. House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, said he supports tougher disclosure laws.
“I don’t know that we have a big problem right now with people influencing legislation or government agencies without registering, but how would we know if we don’t have that level of disclosure?” he said.
Republican Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, who chairs a Senate committee that oversees election and lobbying laws, had yet to weigh in as of Monday. A spokeswoman said the senator wanted to review specifics before commenting.
A staff proposal also calls for lobbyists to detail the bills and topics on which they spend the most time during the reporting period. A number of other states, including Wisconsin, require similar disclosure. Sigurdson said the goal was to “get more specific information in the public.”
That recommendation faces opposition from lobbyists. Hahne, with the state Government Relations Council, said while the association isn’t opposed to updating lobbying laws, many paid lobbyists feel the proposed reporting requirements would be too “burdensome and unlikely to help the public understand the issues.” She noted that the issues that take up the most time may not be the most consequential in a given year or session.
Sensing a difficult political path for adopting new lobbying regulations, the board opted not to endorse any specific proposals for the upcoming session. Instead, board members decided unanimously to draft a letter urging lawmakers to review the lobbying disclosure rules.
“As long as the letter’s short, everybody will read it,” said Carol Flynn, a former DFL senator who serves on the board. “If it’s a very long letter, forget it.”