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As Washington opened the money spigots, Minnesota towns hired D.C. lobbyists

Sometimes Minnesota entities are looking for grants and other federal monies. Sometimes they are trying to block or reverse policy changes.

United States Capitol building
Dan Auble, a senior researcher at Open Secrets, said the Washington lobbying industry fell into a slump after Obama-era reforms were imposed and Congress’s abolition of earmarks.
REUTERS/Emily Elconin

WASHINGTON – Minnesota cities and counties joined a nationwide lobbying blitz in Washington D.C. as the federal government poured money into states during the pandemic. But will local governments get what they are paying for?

After the avalanche of pandemic money poured into state and local coffers, the approval of a massive federal infrastructure bill intensified the desire for a hired gun in Washington. In the first quarter of 2021, about a dozen Minnesota cities and counties had Washington representation. According to financial disclosure forms filed in the U.S. Senate that nearly doubled a year later. In the first of quarter of 2022 nearly two dozen Minnesota counties and towns had hired lobbyists.

Julia Payson, an assistant professor of politics at New York University and author of “When Cities Lobby,” called the phenomenon a double-edged sword.

“Lobbying is a little bit like gambling; it will get your feet in the door but there’s no guarantee you’ll win,” Payson said.

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Lakeville City Administrator Justin Miller said his city hired a Washington lobbyist about a year ago for several reasons.

“There’s a lot of federal money going through the system,” Miller said. “We need more understanding of that system.”

He also said his city decided it was time to hire a lobbyist because Congress had reinstated earmarks after a near 10-year ban on these projects. Since lawmakers are limited in the number of special projects they can ask for, there’s plenty of competition. So, Lakeville hopes its new lobbyist is persuasive.

Miller said he wanted his Washington lobbyist to identify programs that could benefit Lakeville and help with the complicated applications for those programs. At the top of the city’s agenda is money to expand an interchange between County Road 5 and Interstate 35 and a new freight storage yard, Miller said.

He also said Lakeville decided to hire K Street firm Downs Government Affairs because Dakota County had hired the same lobbying group.

“We have joint projects and we thought it best to have a coordinated response,” Miller said.

Dakota County Manager Matt Smith said the county, as the third-largest county in the state, “has many infrastructure needs that would benefit from federal assistance”

“Congress has appropriated a lot of money for infrastructure, but the process of getting the funding for these priorities is challenging and complex,” Smith said. “The county does not have staff in D.C., so we rely on a lobbyist to advocate for projects important to the county and our taxpayers.”

The county has focused its lobbying on two projects — the proposed new interchange in Lakeville and a new Veterans Memorial Greenway that would connect Lebanon Hills Regional Park to the Mississippi River Greenway and improve pedestrian safety.

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Downs Government Affairs has ties to Aurora Strategic Advisors, a Minneapolis-based lobbying firm. Tom Downs, the principal in Downs Government Affairs, said he is a “collaborator” with Mike Erlandson, Aurora’s principle. Both men had worked for former Rep. Martin Sabo, D-5th.

As far as the work Downs does for his clients?  “It is not appropriate for me to speak to the media on behalf of our client,” he said.

Lakeville is paying $10,000 a quarter for its D.C. lobbyist.  Dakota County is paying $20,000 — $10,000 to Downs and $10,000 to Aurora.  Most of the Minnesota cities and counties that have Washington representation are paying about the same, although some, like Washington County paid Downs Government Affairs $20,000 a quarter. That’s not a lot of money in the Washington lobbying world, but could, over time, strain a town budget.

Minnesota cities and towns with D.C. lobbyists, first quarter, 2022
Note: Willmar, Lakeville, St. Louis County, the State of Minnesota, Martin County and Sherburne County each filed reports for this timeframe, but for less than $5,000 in payments to lobbyists, which means the fee is not required to be disclosed.
Source: U.S. Senate Lobbying Disclosure

Downs Government Affairs also represents about 50 community colleges and technical schools across the nation. Some smaller lobbying firms represent other Minnesota cities and counties. For instance, Bloomington hired Primacy Strategy Group — for $10,000 a quarter — last year. Primacy also represents Minneapolis, St. Paul, St. Louis Park, Moorhead, Maple Grove, and Carver and Sherburne counties.

Lobbying makes a comeback

Dan Auble, a senior researcher at Open Secrets, said it’s not rare to see “boutique lobbyists with very specific clienteles.”

He said the Washington lobbying industry fell into a slump after Obama-era reforms were imposed — a reaction to rash of lobbying scandals — and Congress’ abolition of earmarks.

Yet Auble, who tracks the number of D.C. lobbyists and the amount of fees paid to them, said he has seen an uptick in the last few years, with lobbying in the nation’s capital growing to be nearly a $4 billion a year industry.

“This year is on pace to be the biggest ever,” he said.

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Minnesota’s businesses, universities, nonprofits, tribal governments, cities and towns spent more than $9.5 million in the first quarter of this year on lobbying in Washington. Most of this money was paid by the state’s big businesses.

Minnesota’s large corporations have long lobbied Washington, paying top dollar for the services of the biggest D.C. firms. Cargill, for example, spent more than $500,000 last year on fees to four large firms, including the D.C. powerhouse Akin, Gump. But that was dwarfed by Land O’Lakes, which spent $420,000 on outside lobbyists and nearly $2 million on in-house lobbying activity.

But it’s not only big business who spend heavily on lobbyists. The University of Minnesota spent $280,000 on Washington lobbyists and $275,000 on in-house lobbyists last year.

Sometimes Minnesota entities are looking for grants and other federal monies. Sometimes they are trying to block or reverse policy changes.

Twin Metals paid Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck $640,000 to lobby Congress, and the departments of Interior, Agriculture, Energy and Commerce on “mine leasing issues,” the lobbyist’s filings say.

Twin Metals is battling a bill sponsored by Rep. Betty McCollum, D-4th, that would permanently protect nearly a quarter-million acres of Superior National Forest near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness from the drainage from mining operations.

Twin Metals is also at odds with the Biden administration. In January the Interior Department said it found “significant legal deficiencies in the circumstances surrounding the 2019 renewal” by the Trump administration of the company’s leases and reversed that decision.

“The issue the company is dealing with right now is the cancelation of our leases,” said Twin Metals spokeswoman Kathy Graul.

For years, the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association’s D.C. lobbyist focused on pension issues and the right to unionize, said executive director Brian Peters. But now the largest association of law enforcement officers in the state has a new priority for D.C. firm Folger Square Group.

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“Obviously in the last two years, it’s the George Floyd bill,” Peters said.

Drafted after George Floyd’s murder and the ensuing movement for police reforms, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act would abolish “qualified immunity” for police, a type of legal protection that shields officers from being sued for acts in the line of duty.

The Minnesota Police and Peace Officer’s Association, and other law-enforcement groups who also sought to keep the immunity, have had a lobbying victory. The George Floyd bill has been derailed by the opposition to ending this immunity.

Peters also said his association employs a lobbyist “to make sure your (congressional) delegation knows you and your voice is heard.”

Measuring lobbying’s worth

Some states and cities have had a long tradition of hiring a Washington lobbyist.

Bloomington, for instance, has hired D.C. lobbyists since the 1980s. Hennepin County has had a representative in Washington for 20 years, paying for more or fewer services as warranted.

Hennepin County steps up its lobbying, “when the federal government signals there are policy moves,” said Kareem Murphy, the county’s director of intergovernmental affairs. The county’s lobbying needs vary “year by year” and its board of commissioners sets the agenda, Murphy said. The county paid $80,000 last year for the services of Becker & Poliakoff and The Hamm Consulting Group.

While states and some cities have traditionally employed representatives in Washington, Payson noticed an increase in that activity in recent years.

“That’s a good thing if you are a city who is neglected by your elected representative or if you are going for something complicated and you don’t have a large staff,” she said.

She said some municipalities have told her “thank God for my lobbyist. We could not have done this ourselves.”

But Payson says her research has found that the largest, wealthiest cities get the most from their lobbying dollars. There’s also a concern, she said, that smaller cities that hire a lobbyist who represents several municipalities may wind up with disappointing results.

“There’s a sense that they can’t get something for everyone,” Payson said, especially if a lobbyist’s clients are all competing for the same federal grants.

Yet Payson said lobbyists “are relative efficient.” She also said that “based on the system that we have I think it’s the best alternative.”

James Thurber, a political science professor at American University, is less sanguine.

He said cities and towns “hire people to tell them what’s going on and what to do.”

“But much of that money is wasted,” said Thurber, who led a four-year study analyzing lobbying and ethics for the Committee for Economic Development and worked on lobbying reform in the Obama administration.

Thurber said cities and towns that hire lobbyists feel they are going to get back more money than they pay out.

“But nobody is measuring whether it’s worth it,” he said.

Still, Thurber said, the U.S. Constitution protects lobbying.

“We all have the right to petition our government,” he said.