Local governments spending more on lobbyistsby Tom Scheck, Minnesota Public Radio
Democrats in the House and Senate are scheduled to release their tax bills this week, and a lot of people will be looking to see how those bills impact local governments.
Many of them will be lobbyists -- lobbyists who are paid with taxpayer money. Minnesota Public Radio News examined lobbying reports and found that local units of government spent $35 million to lobby the Legislature between 2003 and 2007.
St. Paul, Minn. — A few weeks ago, a group of police officers, firefighters, city officials and others held a rally outside the Capitol to urge lawmakers to protect state aid to local government.
The group that organized the rally, Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities, is one of the loudest critics of Gov. Tim Pawlenty's proposed cuts to local government aid. The Coalition collects dues from 78 rural Minnesota cities and then uses most of that money to lobby the Legislature.
Between 2003 and 2008, the Coalition of reports spending nearly $4 million lobbying the Legislature -- the most of any local government or local government association.
"There's isn't any way that a reasonable person wouldn't say that is well worth it to have a voice at the Capitol," said Tim Flaherty, the Coalition's lead lobbyist.
Flaherty said rural cities rely on his association to make sure their interests are represented at the Capitol.
"We have cities from International Falls to Worthington to East Grand Forks -- all over the state. They are part-time public servants," Flaherty said. "They don't have the resources or the time to come down to the Capitol to represent themselves."
There isn't anything illegal or unethical about local units of government lobbying the Legislature, but the amount of money being spent by local governments to lobby the state has increased dramatically.
Figures reported to the State Auditor show local government lobbying expenses more than doubled in 10 years -- from $3.6 million in 1998 to $7.8 million in 2007.
Those figures include spending by cities, counties, school districts and local government associations.
Pawlenty has been the fiercest critic of the amount of money local governments are spending to lobby state government.
At one point this year, he suggested that city officials concerned with his level of budget cuts could save money by firing their lobbyists. He said every unit of government has to make tough budget decisions.
"We are in some very challenging times right now and people have to prioritize their spending," Pawlenty said. "I would suggest that on top of the list should be things like police and fire so any city or county or local unit of government that is saying on one hand are going to reduce those services, but on the other hand are paying money out the door for lobbyists. It seems like misplaced priorities to me."
Pawlenty also argued that local government officials don't need a full-time lobbyist at the Capitol because they could lobby their lawmakers themselves when they're back in the district.
Flaherty and others argue that they spend most of their time working to reverse Pawlenty's policy proposals.
They also say the governor has an army of lobbyists at his disposal - from within his own office and other state departments who spend most of their time working to promote Pawlenty's agenda at the Capitol, and lawmakers are taking note of those efforts.
"We just think it's an expense that doesn't have to be there," said DFL Representative Michael Paymar of St. Paul.
Paymar, who chairs the House Public Safety budget division, included a provision in a bill that forbids several agencies and departments, like Public Safety and Corrections, from using any money to lobby the Legislature.
"Departments have their own lobbyists to lobby us," Paymar said. "Not only are they present at all of our meetings, but often times you'll have assistant commissioners and other staff members in addition to the lobbyists there to answer our questions. So why do we need lobbyists?"
It's difficult to determine how much money the governor's office and state departments spend on lobbying because they don't have to report their figures.
The governor's office spends $520,000 in salaries for seven people in its Legislative and Cabinet Affairs Department, but those staffers don't devote all of their time to lobbying.
An official with the Management and Budget department said there are another 23 people who lobby on behalf of agencies and departments but they have other job responsibilities as well. Pawlenty said his administration needs to work closely with legislators to get the state's work done.
"Each state agency and the governor's office have people that convey our thoughts and respond to legislative inquiries," Pawlenty said. "We interact with the Legislature. We couldn't function if we didn't. If we had a rule that said we couldn't interact with the Legislature, it would be a pretty weird situation."
A report of annual salaries in the governor's office also shows that the state spends $383,000 a year for two other lobbyists -- the ones who work with the federal government in Washington.
- Morning Edition, 04/20/2009, 7:25 a.m.