Lobbyists give outstate cities a voice

NEW ULM – Legislative lobbying is often controversial.

Many would argue that the only lobbying allowed should be the Legislature’s own constituents, but often lobbying remains the most effective way to have a voice heard.

The 2014 Report on Local Government Lobbying Services from the state auditor showed Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Hennepin County topping the list for most spent on lobbying services.

In order for smaller Minnesota communities to compete with the lobbying pull from the metro area, many lobby through local government associations. In 2014, the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities (CGMC) and the League of Minnesota Cities (LMC) topped the auditor’s list for most lobbying expenditures.

In 2014, CGMC paid $720,270 in lobbying expenses, and LMC paid $603,239 for lobbying

New Ulm is a paying member of both organizations. In 2014, New Ulm paid $24,933 to CGMC and $11,233 to LMC.

New Ulm City Manager Brian Gramentz said that lobbying is part of everyday life.

“Even the liquor store association has a lobby,” Gramentz said.

The basic idea is to ensure New Ulm has a group looking after its best interest. Gramentz explained that as the metro area gains population, it gets more legislators. “It makes it even more important to get our voice heard. We can’t always depend on representation,” he said.

Larger cities often are able maintain professional lobbyists on staff, but for the smaller communities it’s a collective arrangement. “New Ulm can’t hire a $100k lobbyist,” said Gramentz “But we could hire a hundredth of a lobbyist.”

Through the lobbying efforts of CGMC and LMC, New Ulm can be assured someone is negotiating on its behalf. Often the representation comes in the form of defense against harmful legislation. Gramentz gave the example of a theoretical transportation bill that used taxes to fund buses and rail lines in the metro but did nothing to improve highways in Greater Minnesota.

Not all lobbying efforts are defenses against harmful legislation. Gramentz said New Ulm and several other communities are continuing to pushing lobbyists to return Local Government Aid to 2002 levels. Two years ago Minnesota cities successfully lobbied to exempt cities from paying sales tax.

The downside to group lobbying is the risk of disagreement among members. Organizations like CGMC and LMC include a wide and diverse group of communities. Legislation allowing phosphorous treatments could be popular in Northern Minnesota while in Southern Minnesota it’s unpopular due to the negative effects on rivers. In areas of conflict, LMC would be forced to remain neutral.

Gramentz said CGMC and LMC do offer more than lobbying services. Both offer educational programs for city staff and elected officials to allow cities to better function. “It’s a outlet for education that is not found elsewhere,” he said.

Of the $24,933 New Ulm paid to CGMC, about 60 percent or $14,910 was used for lobbying. LMC only used $1,135 or 10.1 percent of New Ulm’s dues for lobbying purposes.

New Ulm also pays membership dues to the Minnesota Environmental Science and Economic Review Board as well as the Highway 14 Partnership. The Highway 14 Partnership is unique in that 100 percent of the $2,500 payment went to lobbying expenses.

School districts also lobby. Independent School District 88 of New Ulm is represented by the Minnesota School Boards Association. The district’s total association payment in 2014 was $5,763 with 22.5 percent or $1,297, going to lobbying expenses.