How many lobbyists are you paying for at the state Capitol? The state auditor knows

In the movie, “The Devil Wears Prada,” Meryl Streep plays top fashion magazine editor Miranda Priestly (who is really cold perfectionist Anna Wintour, the former Vogue editor). There’s a great scene where she appears with her personal assistant (Anne Hathaway) as the pair tour Paris in a chauffeured car with U2’s “City of Blinding Light” blaring on the soundtrack.

As I reviewed DFL State Auditor Rebecca Otto’s new “2006 Local Government Lobbying Services” report, that U2 tune came to mind about life at the Capitol in St. Paul. So many local units of government, so many lobbyists … the city of blinding lobbyists.

Forum Communications political reporter Scott Wente wrote the major story about Minnesota lobbyists: “The report, prepared by Otto’s office, showed local government lobbying expenses dropping by about 9 percent from the previous year.” That story, however, is not the one I look for.

Cities play it safe with multiple lobbyists
Rather, I want to know what all the contract lobbyists want to know: How much is longtime Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities lead lobbyist Tim Flaherty and his firm taking out of the local government lobbying pie? In 2006, the total was $910,000 (PDF), from 12 city groups or individual cities. (Plus, there are five more local units represented by Flaherty that do not appear in the Auditor’s Report.)

The other story I look for is how many cities have paid dues to different groups that represent cities? Coon Rapids and Hoyt Lakes, for example, paid into five different groups. For Coon Rapids, those groups were the Association of Metropolitan Municipalities, the League of Minnesota Cities, the North Metro Crossing Coalition, the North Metro Highway 10 Coalition and the North Metro Mayors Association. Hoyt Lakes paid into the following: the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities, the Coalition of Utility Cities, the League of Minnesota Cities, the Minnesota Association of Small Cities and the Range Association of Municipalities and Schools.

These cities paid into four groups: Anoka, Babbitt, Blaine, Brooklyn Park, Champlin, Circle Pines, Grand Rapids, Granite Falls, Mankato, Maple Grove, Minneapolis, Mountain Iron, New Ulm, Ramsey and Waseca. The entire report is available here (PDF).

I asked Otto what she thought about all this, and here’s her answer: “This is a statutorily required transparency report on lobbying costs . . . it’s not right for me to say what’s right or wrong.” That’s a terrific political answer. Otto views her job as auditor as an auditor, not public policy judge and opiner. However, Otto did flag something new she added this year to address these issues, a two-page appendix called “Guidance on the Use of Contract Lobbyists and Internal Controls.” She asks local units of government hiring lobbyists to ask the tough questions, such as “Could the decision to hire a consultant be justified to taxpayers?” Bully for Otto.

While I’m the first to defend the hiring of lobbyists — there’s this little clause in the First Amendment about the right to petition the government for a redress of grievances — there’s something unseemly about making too much money from lobbying for cities and about cities having too many groups representing them.

For lobbyists, however, representing cities and all local governments is a great gig. The fees come out of taxpayers’ pockets — not a for-profit corporation where every dime spent undergoes serious scrutiny — and government-issued checks always arrive on time.

Back to Hoyt Lakes. The 2000 U.S. Census lists the population for Hoyt Lakes at 2,082 people, which works out to 915 households or 649 families. Do the good citizens of Hoyt Lakes know they are paying five different groups to represent them in St. Paul? Of course, they don’t. (Hence Otto’s report, mandated by the Legislature.)

System makes multiple lobbyists necessary
An important final angle: Shame on any legislator who blasts local units of government for all this lobbying. As long as the Legislature chooses to dole out state funds according to different criteria, cities and other local units of government have to organize to lobby based on those criteria. Our current system is a complicated mess.

While I forgot to ask Otto if she wears Prada, I sure wish she’d be more of a devil on what’s bad about the way the system works. Adhering to merely auditing is a noble use of the office of state auditor. But by virtue of that office, Otto has a bully pulpit she should use.

Plus, there’s great precedent for doing so. Former GOP State Auditor Arne Carlson preached from that pulpit to become governor. Former State Auditor Mark Dayton did the same to become a U.S. senator.

When it comes to local units of government lobbying the Legislature, the devil really is in the details.

Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by John Olson on 01/23/2008 - 04:54 pm.

    I’m in agreement with you Sarah. Local units of government may (and certainly do) constitute a large chunk of taxpayer money being used for legislative and administrative lobbying.

    But the amount of money that is being spent by school districts, administrators and teachers cannot be ignored or overlooked. Whether it is the school districts themselves, the administrators (for example, School Boards Association) or Education Minnesota, that constitutes another huge lobbying expense paid for on the backs of taxpayers. And Education Minnesota is THE proverbial “500 pound gorilla” in the Rotunda. Like LGA, there are probably five people in this state who TRULY understand the K-12 finance system. Taxpayers end up footing the bill for both.

    And, lets not forget the state agency folks who descend on the Capitol as well.

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