Lobbying in Minnesota: Spending has nearly doubled since 2002
On a warm spring evening inside a Minnesota Senate Building hearing room, the lobbyists were anxiously waiting to see how their clients did in the Legislature's tax plan.So many Capitol-watchers stuffed into the 150-person capacity room that Frid...
On a warm spring evening inside a Minnesota Senate Building hearing room, the lobbyists were anxiously waiting to see how their clients did in the Legislature’s tax plan.
So many Capitol-watchers stuffed into the 150-person capacity room that Friday that some sat on floors and others stood in what little space there was to spare. When printouts of the tax plan finally were ready to be distributed that May day, the lobbyists pounced on the documents in a frenzy.
That tableau, repeated again and again in Capitol hearing rooms, shows how much Minnesota lobbying has grown. Since 2002, lobbying interests have spent nearly
$800 million trying to influence government officials. The amount spent per year has doubled, and the number of new lobbying clients seeking to make themselves heard has tripled, according to a Pioneer Press analysis of Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board data.
Critics say the big bucks and hefty staffs give monied interests undue power over state business. The spending causes them to decry the increasing power of paid professionals over the laws and regulations that oversee the state.
But others say the lobbying power helps lawmakers sort through complicated issues and gives voice to those who might otherwise be ignored.
“I’ve really grown to respect it as a very honorable occupation, in that they are such a good information conduit, especially when there are controversial issues that you have to make a decision on,” Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said this spring. “I just can’t imagine a Legislature functioning without a lobbyist corps.”
Back in 2002, the first year that spending had to be reported electronically, lobbying groups spent about $36 million on ads, salaries and other resources to influence government actions.
By last year, the most recent full year available, lobbying groups’ spending had blossomed to
$67 million. The 2015 spending actually represents a slight decrease from 2014. That year, lobbying interests spent $70 million. In 2013, Minnesota lobbying spending reached a high-water mark when groups spent $74 million.
“There’s a lot of new faces around because there’s a feeling that there’s the need to have more boots on the ground to make sure that they can advance their agenda,” said Tom Lehman, who has been a Minnesota lobbyist for
26 years. “The lobbying community is ramping up.”
According to a Pioneer Press analysis, while the amount being spent has grown, the top spending sectors have remained remarkably stable. Business interests have dominated the top spenders on Minnesota lobbying every year. Their spending has subsumed about half of the total spending on lobbying every year since 2002.
Among businesses, utilities’ spending on lobbying rears largest, followed by the health industry.
The big kahunas in spending also have remained consistent. The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, which has spent nearly $25 million on lobbying since 2002 on behalf of its thousands of business-member organizations, is a perpetual top spender. While its interests lay heavily on tax and regulatory policy, it also lobbies on transportation, education, environment and other issues.
Xcel Energy and, more recently, Enbridge Energy Partners, which seeks to construct a pipeline across Minnesota, are also in the top spenders list.
Education Minnesota, the teachers union, has had a place among the top spenders for years. Since 2002, it has spent more than $13 million and dominated union lobbying spending, according to a Pioneer Press analysis. The AFL-CIO spent
$4.7 million on lobbying during that time period. The Minnesota Association of Professional Employees and American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, two unions that represent government workers, each spent about $2 million between 2002 and last year.
Local governments, too, have become heavy lobbyists as they seek to get their wishes for Minnesota to change laws or spend cash in their cities and counties. According to the annual Minnesota State Auditor’s report on local government lobbying, which uses slightly different calculations, local governments spent $5 million on lobbying in 2002. By 2015, local governments’ lobby spending had ballooned to nearly
According to Rep. Gene Pelowski, a Democrat from Winona and former chairman of the House committee overseeing local governments, some of that money is wasted.
“What are you paying them for?” he said. “The legislative delegation are the people who you elect. They’re the ones that are going do the work. ... In general, (lobbyists are) well-intentioned and well-informed, the problem becomes, why do some organizations even need lobbyists?”
CASH DOES NOT EQUAL QUICK SUCCESS
The army of lobbyists at the Capitol and at local and state governments can buy access to decision-makers. Lobbyists know the ways of government and the officials who make those decisions.
But lobbying cash does not equal lobbying success, nor does lack of spending mean lack of influence.
The National Rifle Association has spent just $250,000 on Minnesota lobbying over the past 13 years, ranking it 671st in spending among lobbying groups, yet its views are well-aired at the Capitol. The Minnesota Vikings spent $5.4 million on lobbying between 2002 and 2011 but had no success at getting a stadium approved until 2012.
Good lobbyists, say lobbyists and lawmakers alike, know that.
“The worst thing that could happen for a lobbyist is there’s a vote, and they didn’t know what you wanted. They may get your information and vote against you,” Lehman said. “Lobbyists don’t write laws ... lobbyists write ideas. Lobbyists write suggestions.”