For lobbyists, access to Minnesota legislators — in the State Office Building, outside the House and Senate chambers or just over coffee — has never been more critical, given the potential impact of Gov. Mark Dayton’s sweeping budget proposal.
But Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk is making it clear: he wants to hear less from business lobbyists and more from top business leaders.
“Things are different coming from business lobbyists’ communication than it is coming from the decision makers,” said the DFLer from Cook.
Bakk says he’s heard that disparity in the last several weeks as he’s met with the CEOs and other executives of some of Minnesota’s Fortune 500 companies. Bakk won’t specify which companies have filled up his appointment calendar, but he’s likely to find time to talk to the heads of Ecolab, ALLETE, the Mayo Clinic, 3M, US Bank and the Carlson Companies.
“They understand that we need to invest in the state’s education system,” he said. “I think uniformly they are facing a significant number of retirements over the next decade, and that comes across as a great concern about work force issues as it relates to retirement. I don’t sense they are against all tax increases, but they want it to be spent on things that are important to them.”
Relationship with business
David Olson, president of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, has a long and friendly relationship with Bakk. He said Bakk’s contact with business people is helpful.
“We’ve said for years, if we can get our members to speak up, that’s the best thing because they are the ones that grow the jobs,” he said. “But most of our members are small businesses and they don’t have the time to go to the Capitol.”
Bakk acknowledges as much. “When it comes to the day-in, day-out business, we are going to interact with the business lobbyists,” he said.
That’s a relief to Mike Hickey, state director for the National Federation of Independent Business. Hickey said when Bakk met with the state NFIB board, he told them that he wanted to talk to the decision-makers. “And I told him, ‘Make sure you contact the people who will be the most affected,’” Hickey said, referring to the small businesses that will pay more taxes through a new higher income tax bracket.
Hickey and Olson are worried about Dayton’s proposed extension of the sales tax to business services. Hickey characterized it as “devastating” and said he has alerted his members to let Bakk and other legislators know of their concerns.
Bakk appears to be listening. Olson said Bakk and House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, told the chamber board they believe the business-to-business tax extension is bad policy.
‘Down the road together’
Bakk wouldn’t directly respond to Olson’s description of the chamber board meeting, but said he wants to “go down the road together” with business as budget negotiations progress. “I have not heard them critical with the governor’s spending initiatives; I’ve heard them generally supportive,” he said. “But they tell me, ‘As you look for money, we still need to be competitive.’ And I don’t think you’re ever going to hear that from a business lobbyist.”
Certainly, increasing state spending is not on the Chamber of Commerce agenda, but Olson said the chamber will offer more than stubborn opposition to the Dayton budget. He said his lobbyists are working on spending reforms, workers’ compensation, higher education and the health insurance exchange. “But the big thing is the budget,” he said.
Hickey is sympathetic to Bakk’s political position. “He’s an astute guy and he’s got his own way of working through these things. He’s been thrown a firecracker by the Dayton administration.”
Bakk doesn’t minimize the impact of a budget plan that’s more than just one firecracker but rather a full pyrotechnic show with all the fuses lit. “What the governor proposes is a significant departure, such a big change, that we are susceptible to making mistakes,” he said. “To the extent we can minimize mistakes, I want to engage the real decision-makers. If we make a mistake, if businesses react, I want them to have some ownership.”
In the end, lobbyists will likely carve out the legislative language that reflects business input in the next state budget. “I think whether [legislators] agree with us or not, they respect the ideas we bring to the Capitol,” said Olson. “And everybody realizes this budget is going to take a lot of voices to figure it out.”