Lobbying a necessity for cities

A recent report in the Star Tribune focused attention on the issue of local governments in Minnesota lobbying the Legislature. The report cited the amounts being collected by lobbyists, and talked with some legislators who resent the idea of local governments using the people’s tax money to ask the Legislature for more of the people’s tax money.

In a perfect world, of course, there would be no need for lobbying by local governments. Our legislators would be wise enough and considerate enough to do right by cities, counties and school districts at all times.

But realistically, cities, counties and school districts have learned that when the Legislature is passing legislation affecting them, it is necessary to keep a close eye on what’s happening. We’ve seen too many cases in the past of Local Goverment Aid funds for cities and counties being slashed to balance the deficit in the state’s budget, of payments to school districts being delayed and deferred for the same reasons, for tax law changes unintentionally putting heavier burdens on commercial property tax payers, of limited transportation funds being spent on projects in the areas where the most legislators are.

New Ulm spends about $43,000 on dues for associations like the League of Minnesota Cities, the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities and the Highway 14 Partnership. About $20,000 of that goes to lobbying. In a $24 million annual budget, that’s not much, but the cost of not having someone with expertise on legislative matters keeping an eye on what’s happening in the State Capitol is potentially much greater. It would be difficult for one city manager or mayor to keep abreast of the daily goings on in the Legislature, let alone be in a position to respond quickly. Plus the voice of one city official will not resonate like the voice of an association representing a hundred cities.

Take LGA?as one example. In 2002 New Ulm received $4.15 million in aid from the state. In 2003, with the state in a “no new taxes” mode, that amount was cut to $3.7 milllion and in 2004 it went down to $3.46 million. That’s $600,000 to $700,000 a year that had to be made up either through local tax increases or cuts in services, with parks and libraries bearing the brunt. Over the years, in part through the efforts of the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities, New Ulm is back up to near or slightly above the 2002 LGA?amount.

It’s a sad truth, but having a lobbyist in place during the legislative session is not a bad idea.